Eco Data Center: New Tools for Access and Interpretation


Today, we’re launching the first version of our data sharing tool, the Economics Observatory (ECO) Data Center.

Too much publicly funded data sits in complex silos, accessible only to those with economics or programming degrees. This resulted in repetitive, expensive and error-prone data processing. It opens the door to deception and obstruction. Our new data tool is open, verifiable and automated, helping with all these challenges.

A yawning gap

There has never been a time in history when information has been more important. It is important for policy making where government decisions are taken based on economic data. Data analytics is essential for businesses where strategic decisions are an integral part. And as families manage their bank accounts and pensions through websites or phone apps, it’s important to the public to be more responsible for their finances in the long term.

The Observatory data team believes that data can help make the world a better place, and that the best data – and the tools to analyze them – should be available globally. But we know that information needs to be handled with care. Our new tool does all this – try it here. You can also find the user manual here.

In the year Even in 2023, decades after the Internet, access and use of information remains a major challenge. There is still no single center for public information around the world. And there is no widely accepted standard for collecting or sharing data: some favor spreadsheets; Some as CSVs. There is a host of players, files, formats, and storage technologies that create data transformations for policymakers, news outlets, and companies alike. Current information system:

  • Not clear. Printing data as a picture is opaque. It is impossible to verify the accuracy of the information. It can also be difficult for visualisers who are skilled at switching the x and y axes to show their intended message to spot the trick.
  • Error prone. Every link in the information chain can, and does, break. Each step increases the possibility of human error.
  • Prodigal. There are many players, each adding delay or cost. The same analysis is repeated from time to time. This is slow, expensive and not a good use of analytics resources.
  • Slow. The use of different file types and formats in (and even within) private and public sector organizations leads to compatibility issues. This creates delays and costs.
  • Carbon-based. The siled nature of data efforts means that institutions often house data from other institutions. (Consider, for example, how much data from the Office for National Statistics, ONS, is stored on machines in UK civil service departments). This data storage requirement creates both resource and environment costs.

The ECO Group wants to play a role in moving the UK in the opposite direction on all five of these measures. That is, the goal should be an information system that:

  • Clear
  • common sense
  • Efficient
  • Fast
  • source-light

We have built the very first version: to show how it works; And to get support for our ideas. It’s a ‘minimum viable product’ in tech-speak – the most basic version we can make to show potential partners our ideas.

Three steps to a beautiful table

The tool is based on a common method that anyone can follow to build a chart. First, get the data; Second, make the chart; And third, use it in a presentation or speech. We think that major improvements can be made in all of these areas.

Step 1: Browse – APIs API

All information must be accessed ‘programmatically’. This is data-science lingo for capturing the number you want by using a line of code instead of clicking on a web page. Accessing your data with a line of code may take a little more time the first time you do it, but once you do, you’ll never look back.

Fortunately, most data sources can be accessed this way using an Application Programming Interface (API). Our Hub’s first contribution is an easy-to-use API that sends data directly to your computer. The API takes the form{Country}/{variable}. For example, the UK unemployment API would be:

You don’t need to know the three-letter country ISO codes or our series names by heart, as drop-down boxes allow users to generate their own API queries.

What’s our benefit if countries have an API?

There are two problems in the world of APIs: consistency and compatibility.

Take consistency first. The problem is that countries have developed their APIs so that they all look very different. My bet is, from the code above, you can guess how they handle the United States data… Yes, they changed ‘GBR’ to ‘USA’. But if you want to get continuous unemployment data, let’s see how three APIs – UK, US and Canada – work. You need these three API calls:

This kind of thing sends people back to old, inefficient and unsustainable ways of getting information. Using our API, a user will need to:

The second problem is a bit more technical: in short, countries’ own APIs often don’t do what you ask them to do. The reason for this is a difficult problem known as Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS). For an explanation of the problem, read on over here. Our API eliminates that problem. Full details will be provided in an upcoming API document by our data editor, Dennis Ksala.

Won’t the OECD and the International Monetary Fund do this?

No, they do something different. Think of them as the best of class stores or data tanks: they handle your query and send your data back themselves. Our system is an intermediary or matchmaker: all we are doing is sending your request back to the original data publisher.

For visual metaphor, imagine us running a safe pipe from your computer to ONS in sunny Newport or Stats Canada in snowy Ottawa. Our system is the speaker, and the informants are the speakers. If you are interested in such distributed systems, I recommend reading about Estonia X-way.

Step 2: Build – views as data

Once you have the data you need in hand, all you have to do is build with it. The problem here is that there can be a steep learning curve when you move from point and click solutions like Excel to code views.

Although the latter – charts written as a piece of code – are better in every way. Therefore, the second part of our tool helps to overcome the gap. The user simply points and clicks on the drop-down boxes and their chart appears. So far, logically, it’s just like Excel, only much, much worse.

But there are two big differences here. First, our tool encourages the user to click on ‘Code’ to see the code on their chart. This helps build a mindset shift: visualizations themselves are information. And data is what everyone loves – because it can be shared, copied, verified and reused.

Second, that data—the code that pulls the visualization—can be used on your own website, and includes the pipeline we’ve created to the original provider. This means, for example, that your UK inflation chart will automatically update as new data comes down the pipeline.

Our goal is for people with no coding knowledge to be able to integrate self-updating images into their own websites by the end of the year. We are working on embedding guides for WordPress, Squarespace and Wix.

Step 3: Share – a new data community

The final step is to build a simple place where researchers, policy economists, and the public can post their data sets, data requests, or findings. Users can create profiles, save charts they’ve made, and reduce duplication. (I imagine the number of UK GDP or inflation charts must be in the thousands.) If you like the chart, you can post it to a public stream, which is a bit like Twitter or Instagram, but for data views.

Coming soon: 20 countries and a new blog

Our plan is to test and refine the tool over the summer before integrating it into research, policy work and teaching in September. We’d love it if you could create a tag and make a chart to tell us what you like and don’t like. We’re also interested in hearing what additional functionality you think the data hub needs, especially if you plan to use the tool for teaching or research. At the end of June, we started expanding the tool to cover 20 major economies. A new daily blog using the tool will launch on July 3rd.

Author: Richard Davis
Photo by Tony Studio on iStock

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