Beyond the Numbers Day 2

Because I teach a semester-long course sometimes and I have duties elsewhere, I haven’t been able to attend many smaller conferences lately. Even NCLA has been a struggle. Beyond the Numbers is the perfect small conference that brings together people really interested and knowledgeable about a concentrated topic (or related topics). Not only was I able to connect with librarians I haven’t seen in a while, I was able to put several names to faces and meet new people. Day 1 didn’t disappoint.  Day 2 was a half-day so not as much going on, but there were some interesting sessions.
The keynote was by Wendy Stephens, a professor at Jacksonville State University. Her presentation titled All About You, Up For Sale: How Data Brokers Like Cambridge Analytica Construct Consumer Identities looked at data as a commodity and ways that organizations collect information about us. She made the case for controlling the data that we put out online or allow others to connect. She suggested a number of readings for more information some of which are well known and others I’ve not heard of.
Next, Jennifer Boettcher, ALA Councilor and Business and Economic Liaison and Reference Librarian at Georgetown, talked about intellectual property governance for government data. Her slides were quite good and complete, so I will post a link when they are up on the BTN website. She talked about the difference between copyright and public domain, the open data movement, intellectual property, and more. She mentioned her article in Online Searcher so definitely check that out for more info:  Boettcher, J., & Dames, K. (2018). Government data as intellectual property: Is public domain the same as open access? Online Searcher, 42(4).

After Jennifer, Marie Concannon, Katrina Stierholz, and I presented on the PEGI project looking at the preservation of economic data and information. Marie is the Head of the Government Information and Data Archives at University of Missouri and Katrina is the Vice President and Director of Library and Research Information Services at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I discussed the history of PEGI and current focus of the project. Marie talked about issues she had come across in her work with economic data (and by the way check out her awesome Prices and Wages by Decade libguide). She discussed several of the issues that we’ve encountered including lack of data documentation, the move to cloud services that require a fee for extraction of government data, and the commercialization of government data. Finally, she mentioned the decreasing number of electronic documents available through the GPO, despite the move to electronic formats. For example, she searched the GPO’s Catalog of Government Publications for the “L” SuDoc, which includes the documents for the Labor department, and only 30 items came up. Keep in mind, these aren’t print documents; these are the electronic documents. Her presentation  brought home the scale of the problem that we face regarding the loss of government information.

Katrina then talked about the process of revising economic data and the importance in capturing those revisions over time. She talked about how current versions of economic data are less accurate, but those are the ones on which policy is often made. Therefore, we need to collect the past data so that we can better understand how policy was decided and what the errors were. Moreover, ALFRED, the historical economic data database, only captures series that are in FRED, but there are a lot of data series that aren’t in FRED. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve Banks aren’t government agencies and aren’t subject to the same rules for retention.  So, the question becomes how do we coordinate with these kinds of special nongov organizations that are producing information necessary to the functioning of our government? What becomes the highest priorities?

Lots to think about. PEGI will hold a national forum in December at the CNI meeting with the goal of bringing in stakeholders from the wider communities (librarians, community leaders, activists, archivists, journalists, and government employees). More to come on those discussions soon.


Finally, for our working lunch, representatives from Census, the Federal Reserve Board and Banks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the World Bank, the OECD, and FRED sat on a panel to discuss various issues. Ron Nakao, the Data and Economics Librarian at Stanford, asked an interesting question about the priorities for data in these organizations. He noted that there are three threads in data: data creation/collection,  metadata creation/collection, and tool creation/collection, and that the metadata curation aspects often do not have enough infrastructural support. Several of the representatives agreed and noted the activities at their institutions for metadata creation. For example, the Census Bureau is requiring all surveys to use the same metadata and the BLS is working towards a glossary of terms. Hopefully those efforts will help to reduce the creation of metadata as an afterthought in the data collection/creation process.
Great conference. Really happy that I went although it was whirlwind! BTN is on the list for next year!
P.S. Thanks for the mug! It’s like they know me … and my coffee addiction.

After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder

For some reason I remember Lehman Day (September 15, 2008) pretty well. I was reading the New York Times online in between teaching classes when the news popped up on the screen. It isn’t that I’m particularly interested in business news although I make an effort to keep up with international economics for my classes. But that day stayed with me because I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening. To me it was obvious that all heck was going to break loose, but it didn’t seem to be obvious to our political leaders. After 8 years of fundamentally disagreeing  with most of our leadership’s policies, it seemed like this was the outgoing middle finger to America.

Once the great recession started I wished someone would or could just sit down and explain everything. Trying to decipher the news at that time (and wade through the partisan BS) was impossible. You could get bits and pieces, but no solid explanations were readily available. In this chronicle of the events leading up to and after the crash of 2008, Blinder has tried to fill that gap and he does a fabulous job. While a basic understanding of economics and finance is helpful, he defines complex terms and presents difficult information in a clear way. And I mean that when I say clear. He is almost conversational in tone, but it doesn’t sound condescending. Only one or two chapters were a bit tough to get through (the one on spreads was a bit brutal), but the rest honestly reads like a thriller. Except it is scarier because you know this is all real and your next door neighbor did lose his house and job and you lost your retirement funds.

I also really appreciated this book because it corrects much of the collective amnesia that infects this country. Things like:

  • The government gave a away cash to the banks! (WRONG: The government made loans and investments.)
  • The government lost all of that taxpayer money through TARP (WRONG: the government made a profit.)
  • TARP and the stimulus were the same thing (WRONG WRONG WRONG)
  • This all happened on President Obama’s watch (…….wtf?!)

Not that anyone will remember this tomorrow …

But not to give you the wrong impression. He stays away from partisan politics and focuses on what both sides did wrong. When he writes that President Obama’s biggest issue was not staying on message and communicating plans effectively, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately the President has allowed others to frame the issues (typically framed in lies–see above) and thereby set the agenda. It is frustrating to watch, but maybe, just maybe Michelle will have given him this book for Christmas and he will take heed. One can hope.

And if not we will have all forgotten it in another 8 years.