Search: Numbers -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
BY Inc. staff
Where to find statistics on just about anything, and how to tell the data sources that are gold mines from the sources that are minefields.
The InfoPosse -- Inc's team of crack corporate librarians -- reports each month on what's notable in the world of corporate information.
Numbers -- The Good: Human behavior is governed by three basic requirements: the need to eat, the need to procreate, and the need to measure stuff. Consequently, finding a specific number among the googolplex available can be as challenging as locating a particular piece of hay in a haystack. Fortunately, Statistical Resources on the Web ( www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/stats.html) offers number hunters an excellent starting point. The site is divided into more than 200 categories of links, "from aging and advertising to weather and wildlife," says InfoPosse member Lisa Zwickey. Clicking on "Transportation," for example, yields statistics on -- among other subjects -- crash tests, used cars, automotive production, drivers' licenses, and highway finance. Want to know the percentage of woman-owned businesses in Alabama, the number of books published in Hungary in 2000, or the regional distribution of the red-throated loon? It's all here. "The demographics section alone," says Zwickey, "could sustain the nation's marketing divisions for years."
Numbers -- The Bad: Speaking of statistics, the following will curl your toes. Alcohol abuse costs U.S. businesses $148 billion a year. Bad intranet design is responsible for losses of $100 billion. And $29 billion in man-hours go down the tube as employees wrestle with elder care. Lump those in with 39 other culprits, and presto! That's $4.1 trillion sucked annually from our collective bottom line. Or possibly not, says Matthew Budman in "Counting the Costs: How Corporate America Loses $4,097,400,000,000 Every Year. Sort Of" ( Across the Board, March/April 2002). The author "wryly debunks the sometimes spurious data produced by industry groups and government agencies purporting to quantify various corporate evils," says InfoPosse member Christine Klein. Like an economics-trained Michael Moore, Budman confronts several sources of the dubious statistics, to little avail. He does give credit to Tim Field, whose Web site meticulously breaks down the $400 billion supposedly lost each year to workplace bullying. "Every variable in those calculations is debatable," writes Budman. "But at least Field puts his figures on display and responds cordially to outside queries."
"Medieval manuscripts say that King Arthur personally killed 10,000 people in battle. What they mean is 'a lot' -- and that's how these figures are used."
From "Counting the Costs," Across the Board
Numbers -- The Ugly: There are bad numbers, and then there are bad numbers that move markets. In 1997, for example, the U.S. Agriculture Department's overstatement of soybean stockpiles inflated prices of that legume by more than 2%. Similarly, premature release of data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1998 briefly caused turmoil in the financial markets. Those are just two examples among dozens cited in the article "Data in the Corporate Universe: It's a Dangerous World Out There" ( Searcher: The Magazine of Database Professionals, March 2001). Helene Kassler's wide-ranging study chronicles every variety of fraud, glitch, manipulation, honest mistake, and technology-based deception to bedevil business-information consumers for the past 15 years. "Kassler's buyer-beware message is an important one for nave employees," says Klein. "The remedies section is short but contains sound advice for spotting the misinformation out there."
The InfoPosse members are Genevieve Foskett, corporate librarian at Highsmith Inc.; Lisa Guedea CarreÑo, library director at Goshen College; Christine Klein, a corporate librarian with more than a dozen years of experience; Jean Mayhew, former director of information and learning at United Technologies Research Center; and Lisa A. Zwickey, senior research specialist at J.J. Keller & Associates.