Playing Around With Data

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about collection, and a teeny-tiny bit about the history of the institutions behind data collection exercises in India.1

In today’s post, I’ll compare two websites – one American and one Indian – to show you how both countries allow researchers to use the data that has been collected. Spoiler alert: the American website does a way better job. The idea isn’t to run down the Indian website, but to see how much distance we need to cover in terms of improvement.

And I think it is a worthwhile question to ask – why is the American website so much better? What is it about us that we cannot come up with a website of a similar quality? Is it a question of capacity, of bureaucratic inertia, of not enough demand from the research community in India or something else altogether? This is a topic worth thinking about… but not today.


The American website is FRED, hosted by the St Louis branch of the Federal Reserve. FRED stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data, and it is a magnificent resource. It really and truly is.

Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) is a database maintained by the Research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that has more than 765,000 economic time series from 96 sources. The data can be viewed in graphical and text form or downloaded for import to a database or spreadsheet, and viewed on mobile devices. They cover banking, business/fiscal, consumer price indexes, employment and population, exchange rates, gross domestic product, interest rates, monetary aggregates, producer price indexes, reserves and monetary base, U.S. trade and international transactions, and U.S. financial data. The time series are compiled by the Federal Reserve and many are collected from government agencies such as the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The economic data published on FRED are widely reported in the media and play a key role in financial markets. In a 2012 Business Insider article titled “The Most Amazing Economics Website in the World”, Joe Weisenthal quoted Paul Krugman as saying: “I think just about everyone doing short-order research — trying to make sense of economic issues in more or less real time — has become a FRED fanatic.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Reserve_Economic_Data

I’ve been using the website for years now in classes that I teach, but I’m sure there are features of the website that I have not been able to use. It’s got the ability to create charts on the fly, it has embeddable widgets, it even has a functional Excel add-in.

If you’re looking at this website for the first time, try going through these exercises. Or, if you are a video kind of person, try this playlist on YouTube.

It is, all things considered, a wonderful way to take a look at data – mostly American, naturally, but it does have a whole host of other data series as well.


The Indian website is our comparable offering: the database on the Indian economy. As you will see once you click on the link, it isn’t nearly as user-friendly as FRED, and in my experience, the website itself isn’t always “up” all the time. There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a YouTube channel that explains how to use the website, and while there is a brochure about DBIE, it isn’t quite as helpful as it ought to be.

Indian researchers will also visit the MOSPI website often. That is the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. If you read the link supplied in the first footnote of today’s blogpost, you will know that MOSPI is the culmination of India’s data collection exercises – these have been ongoing since at least 1881.

The MOSPI website itself is a bit problematic, because there are two now. One is mospi.nic.in, which is the one I have linked to above, and the other is mospi.gov.in. This one seems to not be fully functional just yet, and the data is far from complete. Gratifyingly, what little data there is on the new website is made available in Excel formats.

That is actually a major problem, because on the old (but current, if you see what I mean) MOSPI, data is given in PDF format. There is an army of Indian researchers who have fought the Great PDF Wars, as a consequence, and therefore have learnt about Chrome extensions, and about Tabula. If you are planning on researching the Indian economy, you will have to acquire these skills sooner or later, for MOSPI and DBIE are the best we have on offer in terms of data portals2.


I said I won’t speak about the “why” regarding data portal quality, but I would like to offer a suggestion about the “how” in terms of improving it.

Appoint an educational institute to be the nodal agency3, and get them to work on a report about what needs to change, and why and how, for the DBIE website to become better than it is right now. That doesn’t mean (at all) a blind copy of FRED, awesome though FRED definitely is.

And if the team that does end up working on this is also allowed to come up with a beta version of the new website, well, that would just be the proverbial cherry on top.

I mean, why not?

  1. Really teeny-tiny bit. Please read the whole thing[]
  2. that are free and government run. There are other data portals available, but of course one must pay for them[]
  3. IGIDR would be a good pick for obvious reasons[]

6 thoughts on “Playing Around With Data

  1. Hi Ashish,

    While working with Indian budget data, we encountered a similar problem. This is how we solved it. Readers might find this useful.

    https://openbudgetsindia.org/

    It’s also meant to guide first time users of budget data (national, state, municipal, district treasury data) in India.

  2. Well tabula may not always work stringr and tidy verse along with str split function is required parse those psr documents..

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