The FRED Team has just automated the process of how it names many of its data series. Because FRED aggregates data from 89 different sources, choosing the right name for any of the 627,000 data series is no small matter. Yes, the Bard wrote “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But in the world of data, a confounding name can be a thorny problem.
Let’s choose a common example. The data series for the unemployment rate in the U.S. is collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But the media can choose to report the data with a variety of names: national unemployment rate, civilian unemployment rate, official unemployment rate, harmonized unemployment rate, or U3.
The FRED graph below shows two series: the unemployment rate (from the BLS) and the harmonized unemployment rate (from the OECD). Why do we see only one line? Because the series are one and the same. So, what is the correct name for the unemployment rate data series? The answer depends on the source of the data. So, FRED will now display the series name as reported by the source of the data from the most comprehensive machine-readable location.
In the case of the BLS, that location is series LNS14000000. The series is accessible through the LABSTAT public database, which contains current and historical surveys and press releases. For the BLS series LNS14000000, the name of the data series is “unemployment rate,” so FRED will call it simply that: unemployment rate.
Although the FRED data series identifiers have not changed, there are 2,782 data series names that have changed. For a complete list, see this CSV file. You’ll notice that many data series in FRED related to the consumer price index now have updated names.
Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo and Maria Arias.
View on FRED, series used in this post:
Differences in European unemployment rates
The previous recession was a worldwide phenomenon. It originated with a financial crisis in the United States that resonated in other countries, in particular Europe. The graph above shows the unemployment rate for the U.S. and a few European countries. It is taken from the OECD’s Main Economic Indicators, which goes through the trouble of trying to harmonize the definitions across countries, thus making them comparable. What is striking is how varied the experience has been. The gray area represents the period of the U.S. recession. It is remarkable that Germany’s unemployment rate actually was going down through much of this period. In contrast, unemployment shot up in Spain and, to a lesser degree, in Italy. And the U.K., arguably with the strongest financial ties to the U.S., experienced a relatively minor increase in unemployment. How can such varied experiences be explained? For one, the financial crisis was not the only economic event happening across those countries. Second, the labor market institutions and traditions differ a lot as well. Spain in particular is a poster child of rigid labor laws, and Germany was still in the transitional phase of labor market reforms.
How this graph was created: Search for “harmonized unemployment rate total,” then use the tags in the side bar to limit choices to frequency “monthly” and “seasonally adjusted.” Check the countries you want to display and click on “Add to Graph.” Finally, let the sample period start in 2002.
Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.
“There is always someone who has it worse” is sometimes a consolation when bad things happen to you. Here, we contrast the U.S. unemployment rate with the rates in Greece and Spain. There were certainly reasons to complain about the high unemployment rates in the U.S. during the past recession, but they pale in comparison with the experiences in Greece and Spain—even outside recessions. This disparity doesn’t come from differences in definitions of unemployment, either; this graph uses the harmonized unemployment rates from the OECD, which are designed specifically to make the rates comparable.
How this graph was created: Search for “harmonized unemployment rate,” then modify the tags in the side bar to restrict the choices. Select the countries you want and add the series to the graph (using the button at the top or bottom of the list). Finally, restrict the sample period to when data are available for Greece or Spain.
Suggested by Christian Zimmermann