Saturday, May 26, 2012

"Disappearing" Historical Data

It's the bane of my life - and probably that of every other economist who (tries to) work(s) with time-series data. Historical data that simply disappear.

Shazam! Now you see, it; now you don't!

You know the sort of thing I mean, I'm sure. Just when you think you have a nice long, consistent, series of economic data, the statistical agency in question suddenly stops recording it. They change the basis on which the data are gathered (usually for perfectly good reasons), and leave you with a big red DISCONTINUED descriptor.

Gee - thanks a lot!

Sometimes they even "pull" the historical series that you were really counting on, and just provide you with a pretty new series that started yesterday, and won't be of any use to anyone for ages.

Sometimes I feel that the providers of our data don't really want the numbers to be used by any of us.

So, it's refreshing when you come across some serious, really long-term data, provided by a first-class national statistical agency.

I'm referring to Statistics New Zealand. Yes, I used to live and work there, but that's not why I'm giving them a "plug" here. They have a long and well-deserved reputation for doing a great job. I've had great dealings with them over the years, and they were into providing timely data in an electronic format (INFOS), with great associated software, long before we even knew what "www" meant.

And the long-term historical data that I mentioned? Well, take a look at their Long-Term Data Series, and (possibly) weep. Here we have data for a range of economic and social indicators, back to 1840 in some cases.

One of the nice things about this resource is that, in compiling it, Statistics NZ incorporated historical estimates produced by a number of highly regarded economic and social historians. I believe it's called "collaboration". And you can compare the separate estimates, if you're so inclined.

This isn't just a collection of boring spreadsheets. It's a valuable and serious piece of data research.

If you want long-term N.Z. data, how about:
  • Alcohol consumption (by type) back to 1862?
  • GDP/GNP data back to 1859?
  • Trading bank deposits back to 1857?
  • External trade data back to 1841?
  • Migration data back to 1840?

I'm sure you get the idea.

Oh yes, in case you were wondering - what's so special about the year 1840? Well, that's when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and British sovereignty was proclaimed. In other words, you could say it was "Year Zero"!

© 2012, David E. Giles

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