As one of Rochester’s resident data geeks, I often find myself explaining why we don’t know what we don’t know. At the “micro” level—e.g. an individual firm—we have become accustomed to knowing more and more about our customers and what they buy, where they buy it and when they buy it. A sophisticated food retailer like Wegmans, for example, can tell you how many gallons of milk were sold yesterday at each of its 89 stores. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they could tell us how many gallons of 2% were sold in Pennsylvania last Tuesday between 10 and 11 am! High volume, low margin retailers depend on this information to keep the shelves filled, satisfy customers, and improve their bottom line.
Aggregate information about our communities—milk consumption is one thing but what about more consequential information about employment, income and educational attainment—is far more difficult to obtain. We rely on the same sources of information we’ve used for decades. Data on employment and earnings still depend on twice a year reporting from firms covered by federal unemployment insurance. The state and federal labor departments supplement with monthly sampling that give us a snapshot of trends that have yet to be reported under the unemployment insurance program. Just in the last decade we’ve had access to labor data that matches reporting by firms to income tax records, although this takes time and is only available after a couple of years have passed. Read more »