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Geeking Out on Statistics

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Finding reliable statistics on the web isn't always easy, but a massive central data source called Nationmaster.com offers a handy way to search multiple stats repositories.

I'll admit it... I'm a geek about statistics. I actually find it interesting that Iceland has the highest rate of electricity consumption per capita, that Venezuelans are the most likely to say they are "very happy" (Bulgarians are most likely to say they are not happy), or that Norwegians drink more coffee than any other country.

When I first discovered the CIA World Factbook, back in the days when it only existed in print format, I actually skimmed through it to find out which country had the highest number of political parties. Yes, I know... I need a life.

So I have been having fun playing around with NationMaster, a cool site developed by Luke Metcalfe, an Australian and fellow stat-geek who was frustrated at his inability to mine the data within the CIA World Factbook. NationMaster now includes data from the World Bank, various United Nations entities, OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), World Trade Organization, and so on.

Here's how it works. Head over to NationMaster.com, and select a category from the pull-down menu—anything from Crime to Industry to Sports. Once you have chosen a category, a subject-specific subcategory menu appears, from which you pick a specific topic. For example, subcategories for Health include percentage of infants immunized against measles, number of acute care beds, and obesity in men.

Yes, you could glean these numbers by going through tabular material from various government agencies and NGOs. But that's time-consuming and inefficient. NationMaster goes far beyond providing a simple table. You can view the compiled statistics in bar graphs, pie charts, and maps. There are often even cross-tabs showing correlations between two sets of statistics, such as the inverse relationship between the number of McDonalds restaurants per capita and the number of couples with children.

The source(s) for each graph is clearly indicated, and each category is defined in non-technical terms. For example, the definition for "total crime victims" is: "People victimized by crime (as a % of the total population). Data refer to people victimized by one or more of 11 crimes recorded in the survey: robbery, burglary, attempted burglary, car theft, car vandalism, bicycle theft, sexual assault, theft from car, theft of personal property, assault and threats."

Interestingly, users can comment on individual tables and graphs. The commentary for the Total crime Victims data noted that "How the [crime” statistics are compiled could greatly affect the statistics. Population surveys may detect unreported victims, while crime reports may not count those victims that do not come forward, even if the crime is reported."

NationMaster also recently rolled out StateMaster.com, a sister site that offers similar data mining on US state statistics, using sources such as the US Census Bureau, FBI, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a variety of non-profit organizations such as the March of Dimes.

As researchers and information professionals are called upon to provide not just information but intelligence, NationMaster.com is a great resource for gaining new insights from the available information.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Boulder, Colorado.

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