Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Data on Portugal

   We all need good data and easy access to it. And data may be crucial as it was the case with the Greek crisis. Governments there have played around with national accounts and government statistics for a while, but that became more serious in recent times. Portugal's Prime Minister has been accused of exaggerating this year's government deficit, probably to show better results in the near future. Although that has not been proved yet, I bet that it is true.
   For Portugal's national accounts there are two main sources of data. The Instituto Nacional de Estatística, which was founded in the wave of institutional organizations in the 1930s, and has some but not too serious problems of credibility; and the Banco de Portugal, which has all the credibility, but a smaller data basis. The INE, which is dependent on the government, is not a very efficient institution, but the causes behind that are much more complex than just government intervention - it simply needs to be fully reformed. Moreover, INE provides information in an expensive and inefficient way, as may be concluded by browsing for a few minutes its web page. Banco de Portugal is more reliable, more transparent, and also free, but incomplete. In many occasions, it is necessary to use the EU or the OECD data basis in order to get the main series for economic analysis. Yet such data are not widely accessible at universities and other centers, simply because most libraries do not subscribe to them.
   The deficiencies concerning the production and distribution of data have an important impact on the quality of the discussion of many topics in Portugal, including economics. So this is a field where institutional reforms and investment are needed.
   A recent contribution towards improving the scenario was the creation of Pordata, funded by a private institution. This new site is welcome, but it may not be the best approach to solve the problem of data access in Portugal. We do not really need a third source of data, which also has many flaws, to add to the other two we already have. What we need is that INE gets more reliable, more accessible and cheaper, and that libraries in Portugal have better access to data already produced by international organizations. A better use of private money would be to improve what we already have instead of creating new data sources. I am probably being too naive, if such improvements are indeed too hard to achieve.
   But there is some hope: maybe INE will respond to competition from Pordata and improve its efficiency and accessibility.

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