From November 8th through November 10th I had the great pleasure of experiencing Beyond the Numbers (BTN), the annual conference hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. This was my first Beyond the Numbers and I hope it won’t be my last – it was wonderful! The conference is really for anyone who is interested in economic information. You get a good mix of folks from both international and domestic governmental organizations and academic institutions, with just about every session exploring some element of economic data.
Here are some of the highlights:
I discovered that networking at BTN goes a little like this…
“Hi! I’m Morgan – a Business Librarian at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Nice to meet you”
“Hi! Great to meet you too. I’m Jane Doe from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.”
“Cool! What do you do at the BEA?”
“Oh, I work on researching and releasing quarterly GDP numbers.”
“Like..THE G D P? Gross Domestic Product? The thing that tells us how healthy the American economy is? You work on that?”
“Yeah! I help with the research and write all the press releases when the numbers are ready.”
But no, really. They could call this conference Behind the Numbers because there is a good chance that the researcher/data scientist/economist who helps come up with the numbers that will single-handedly either sink your 401k or send it through the roof will be here.
Oh – and the conference offers an OUTSTANDING free breakfast and lunch. Avocado toast bar anyone?
Celebrities (for Econ Nerds)
While I was pretty sure I wouldn’t spot Jerome Powell wandering the halls of the Federal Reserve (spoiler alert…I didn’t..thwarted by inflation once again! **shakes fist**) I did get to meet and learn from one of my favorite public radio hosts … Stacey Vanek Smith! Current Global Economics correspondent for NPR’s Business Desk, former co- host of The Indicator from Planet Money and making regular appearances on shows like Marketplace and Life Kit Stacey offered the keynote on the first day of the conference titled “Paint by Number – How Combining Data and Storytelling Can Help Us Understand the Economy and the World Around Us”.
Listen, I get it – economic data isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. There is a lot of jargon, complex ideas, opposing viewpoints, and, let’s be honest, some serious egos. What is great about Stacey is, she gets it too! But, as she illustrated in her keynote, she also recognizes that information and stories about the economy don’t have to be that way, they don’t have to be scary, or intimidating, or elitist. It’s everyone’s economy after all – for richer or poorer, if we are living here it is impacting us (some more than others) and we deserve to understand what’s driving the whole machine. Easier said than done, and Stacey… she has a plan to get it done! She outlined how hard it can be to pull back the curtain on some of these big economic concepts that underpin so much of the “how” we live our lives and offered one solution toward bringing economic and data literacy to more folks – through storytelling.
Stacey outlined five “tricks”, as she called them, to help tell the story of the economy using data like a master storyteller uses adjectives.
- Use individual stories (“Humanize the data”). Humans are hardwired to connect with other people. When we reduce people to a statistic, it can be hard to care. But when we identify an individual within that statistic and explore who they are, suddenly we tune in.
- Frame the story. What’s the journey we are about to take? What are we hoping to accomplish here? Create “frames” to help set the mindset of the reader/listener. Stacey often uses the frame of going on a “quest”, priming listeners to search for clues (i.e. data) in the story and get curious about what is around the next corner.
- Details. Don’t shy away from details! Details connect the reporter (or researcher) and the listener (or reader). They suddenly allow the listener to imagine themselves as the main protagonist, making connections with larger concepts and ideas.
- The story arc. Find and explore the story arc of the individual from beginning to climax to conclusion. Listen, the consumer price index (CPI) is not exactly titillating on the surface. But when you realize the increase (or decrease) in the price of socks or a stick of butter from one period of time to another can collectively help determine if interest rates stay the same, get lower, or go higher…and it’s our protagonist’s job to collect that data….the story gets intense!
- The takeaway. Potentially the most important “trick” of the five. This asks us to put the journey we just experienced together into a larger context. Why did we look at this one person doing this one job? What was the meaning of that random statistic we started with? Explore what it all means!
ESG….here we go
Besides the networking, free food, and celebrity sighting, the other big motivation for wanting to go to BTN was to learn more about ESG scores. Standing for Environmental, Social, and Governance “standards” (more on the “” part later), ESG scores are increasingly becoming the research topic de jour for folks interested in everything from finance to sustainability. Summer and I have both experienced an uptick in questions from students and faculty interested in “ESG Data” (ex: “Do companies with a certain type of ESG score perform better financially over time”) not to mention the fact that Wake Forest hosted its first ESG@Wake Competition last year and the Center for Analytics Impact annual conference will focus on ESG this year – it’s clearly an emerging topic that we are trying to better understand. Luckily for me BTN offered an entire afternoon of programming devoted to the topic. And, while I am now more informed about what is available in terms of ESG information resources – I am also more concerned, as an information professional, about the emerging ESG information landscape. Namely:
- There are no public sources of ESG data so if you want it you are going to have to pay for it and believe me, it ain’t cheap.
- There are no “standards”. Each vendor has their own proprietary methodology for calculating scores and the general consensus among BTN attendees was that many vendors are either close-lipped about their methodology or present marketing information as methodology that does little to illuminate what exactly goes into each score.
- Here today, gone tomorrow. As is the nature with third-party data sources, ESG data products are constantly being sold and repackaged into different products which means names are changing all the time making it hard for studies to be reproduced, track down the right vendor, and causing headaches when it comes to citations.
- Speaking of reproduction… Due to the astronomical costs associated with institutional access to these products, most academic institutions can only afford single-use licenses to individual datasets. What’s worse, it’s apparently not uncommon for the providers to put term limits on how long the researcher can access the data meaning, once the researcher completes said research, they lose access to the data and good luck to the researcher who inquires with the original researcher about the source of their data.
- Inequality. It isn’t necessarily cheap for businesses to invest in some of the newest infrastructure that is helping to make business more sustainable. While it’s wonderful that the companies that can, do (hopefully making it possible for future iterations of said infrastructure to become more cost-efficient) this also means that larger companies receive “better” ESG scores than their smaller competitors (and this isn’t just environmental infrastructure, creating and integrating a responsive Human Resources Department, for example, can also be pricy) . It’s important to remember that, at its core, ESG measures the financial “risk” an investor takes on by investing in a company. Using only ESG as a metric for capital investment means that a lot of the folks at the top stay at the top, and the folks at the bottom…well, they stay at the bottom.
I’ve been really frustrated by ESG data. And, by all the head nodding, sighs, and general sense of commiseration within the audience – I’m not alone. I do want to be clear, I don’t think anyone in these sessions examining ESG data were advocating for the complete abandonment of the concept of the “ESG score”, but clearly something needs to happen that helps create transparent and accessible accesses to this type of data if we ever hope to enable researchers, advisors, and private citizens to make informed analysis and decisions about the impact of business on society and the environment. By the size of the crowd for these discussions at BTN, I think Librarians will certainly be part of a solution.
Suffice to say, I found a lot to enjoy and think about at BTN and hope to make it back to St. Louis soon!