By Rebecca Riley
One week on from the close of the Conference on Economic Measurement 2020, I hope you have had the chance to reflect on the proceedings and view some of the key highlights.
Despite Covid-19’s disruption of our original plans for holding the conference earlier in the year at King’s College London, the virtual conference format proved a fantastic alternative. Although we missed chances for mingling and interacting in the usual way, it still provided a great opportunity to find out about what’s going on in economic measurement research and to link with colleagues old and new. In some ways the electronic platform allowed us to get a better overview of the state of play. It certainly provided a very useful catalogue of the frontier of measurement research and the issues in developing economic statistics at this moment in time. The many excellent discussions and papers presented have been recorded and will be available for you to dip in and out of in the months ahead.
Three key themes emerged over the duration of the conference. The first was around public perceptions of economic statistics and how these have changed with the pandemic. The second involved the speed of innovation in economic statistics brought about with the pandemic. The third theme was about how, in some ways, the last six months simply represent a compact version of what we have seen over many decades – a picture of statistics evolving with the structure of the economy and policy needs, the latter reflecting societal needs at large.
Regarding public perceptions of and demand for economic statistics and statistics more broadly, there is little doubt that these have changed in the last six months and this was reflected in the conference discussions. One very illustrative example was given by Sumit Dey-Chowdhury of the ONS, who mentioned during Panel Session I ‘Lessons From The Pandemic: Defining Recessions in Real-Time’ that “friends of mine are suddenly taking an interest in what I do in a way they never have done before”. We also heard from the Office for Statistics Regulation that their caseload during the first few months of the pandemic mirrored the usual caseload seen in a whole year. Rikke Hansen of the United Nations pointed to increased interest worldwide in the past six months in new types of data on the economy and data communications and she talked about a surge in interest in her online Stats Café sessions. Mairi Spowage of the Fraser of Allander Institute suggested during Panel Session II that if anyone doubted the value of monthly GDP those doubts have now been dispelled.
So public perceptions of the value of statistics have changed. During a pandemic when public health is at risk, the value of statistics suddenly becomes very tangible. This rubs off on economic statistics as these health events are also tied to large and rapid changes in social and economic outcomes. As Chris Giles pointed out in his intervention “the most important real time data is data on the disease”. The social benefit of statistics and economic statistics has become very visible to many in this fast-moving environment and we are at a point in time where there is a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of statistics. As Anna Vignoles suggested in her excellent plenary, there are ample examples of the significant value to society of data and statistics, and this is the moment to be talking about this value.
On the second theme, that of the speed of innovation in economic statistics due to Covid-19, as Iain Russell of the OSR said in Panel Session II, necessity is the mother of invention. We heard of many examples of innovation at this conference. Also, in Panel Session II Darren Morgan of the ONS talked about statisticians becoming less precious, about a change in the balance of risks. Tom Joseph of the Australian Bureau of Statistics talked in the Covid-19 Panel Session about a change in culture that has developed to meet new communication needs.
We have seen new collaborations around data sharing and very creative uses of data to provide new economic insights over the last six months. Some of the many examples that stood out at this conference include the use of rich novel data sources at Statistics Denmark to monitor economic activity, Rachel Soloveichik’s thinking around cost-of-living indices during lockdown and novel uses of card transactions data – both in relation to the pandemic and more widely.
These innovations raise new issues. The need to distinguish between measurement and insights provided by new data sources, and the need to communicate this difference clearly to avoid erosion of trust and confusion. This was pointed out several times during the conference. So was the importance of widening data access to fully harness the benefits of new data, for analytical purposes, and for assessing the quality of new insights and statistics.
The challenge going forward will be to maintain, develop and embed these new collaborations around data sharing and research, and this increased creativity in the development of economic measurement and its communication.
As to the final theme coming from discussions at the conference, that in some respects none of what we have seen in the last six months is new, I highlight Anil Arora’s account in Plenary Session II of the development of economic statistics over the last century (and indeed earlier), showing how these had continually adapted to economic circumstance and policy demands. Jennifer Banim mentioned in Panel Session III that the vision around economic measurement is the same, it is just that the momentum behind this has increased with the pandemic, and indeed I think we saw evidence of this vision throughout the conference. There were lots of examples of collaborations and of creative uses of data and methods to inform general economic and social discourse.
I hope you will have a chance to browse through the many examples at your leisure, visiting the recordings made. When you do, you might bear in mind Sir Ian Diamond’s challenge to all of us – put at the start of this conference – that the metric of success of this dialogue, research and collaboration is “how many of the ideas put forward are implemented as statistical outputs”. He also mentioned “in the next six months”.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this year’s conference possible, and to all of those who participated. I hope we will be able to meet in person next year for Economic Measurement 2021 at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow planned to take place in May.