Perhaps you’ve seen a lot of charts on Business Insider that look like this one, showing seasonally adjusted weekly jobless claims since 2006.
Or maybe you’ve seen this chart, showing the inversion of weekly jobless claims overlaid with the S&P 500.
Well if you didn’t already know by now, all these charts are made possible using a site called FRED, which stands for Federal Reserve Economic Data, and is run out of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which is one of 12 regional Federal Reserve branches.
There are two reasons we go to FRED just about every day.
- The database is amazing. We use it to look up everything from Case-Shiller home price data to state-by-state unemployment to the price of a gallon of gas to the amount of bank lending that’s going on.
- And the charting tool can’t be beat. It took us two seconds to make that initial claims vs. S&P 500 chart you see above. There are tons of sites out there that have data (including many commercial ones run by large enterprises that would like to dominate the financial data space) and none have come close to matching the simple elegance of FRED’s charts. Want to compare the total volume of household savings as a percentage of GDP vs. the yield on the average CD? DONE (click the chart on the right to enlarge).
And we’re not the only ones who use the site like crazy.
We asked famous FRED user and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman his thoughts on the site, and he told us he used it: “I’d say three or four times a week, at least — basically any time I’m addressing a US macroeconomic issue.”
Photo: puddleglum42 via Flickr
Krugman added that it’s taken the entire economics profession by storm: “I think just about everyone doing short-order research — trying to make sense of economic issues in more or less real time — has become a FRED fanatic.”
Frankly, we’re not used to seeing this level of innovation and user-friendliness on a public website, so we were curious to know the story behind it.
So a couple of weeks ago, we got the chance to chat with four people from the St. Louis Fed: Michael Cassidy, (Electronic Data Coordinator – FRED), Katrina Stierholz (Assistant Vice President and Director of Library and Research Information Services), George Essig (Senior Web Developer) and Julie Knoll (Senior Web Developer).
Michael Cassidy laid out the basic history for us:
It goes back to the 1960s and Homer Jones. Homer Jones started a history of producing data publications out of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and FRED kind of became the electronic version of those data publications. In 1991, we’d been producing those publications for a while, and decided they needed to be put online in a bulletin-board format.
So we’d post, I think we had 200 data series at the time, they were all included in our data publications, and people could dial in and download them in a text format. In 1996, we moved to the world wide web, and we had about 403 series. The modern version of FRED that you’re probably familiar with, FRED 2, that started in 2002.
In 2006 we came out with ALFRED, which was vintage data, graphing customisation and allowed for units transformations and had about 3,000 series in FRED at the time. Then in 2007, we added about 20,000 additional series and started GEOFRED.
2011 turned out to be a banner year for FRED. According to Julie Knoll the site saw 1.9 million visits, a 42 per cent increase from the year before. FRED visitors come from 200 countries.
What’s remarkable is that for such a powerful site, the team building it is incredibly light, with only 5-6 people working on it at a level that could be called “full time.”
When I asked further how the site got to be what it is, I was quite impressed by how obvious it was that it operated with the experimental and agile nature of the most dynamic web startups.
Katrina Stierholz: I don’t’ think it was single decision, I think it was a recognition that we had this tool people were using — FRED’s been popular for long time — I think it’s more popular now because obviously the financial crisis has made a larger public interest in economic data, but it has been popular among academics and financial analysts for a long time. So as we built FRED, the popularity was obvious, so they fed off each other. The more people came to our website and recognised the work we were doing on FRED, the more we realised, ‘We should really keep working on this and work hard and do more because we really provide a valuable service.’ So it wasn’t like a single thing.
George Essig: I started working on FRED in 2000, and at that time it was just a static html; the data files were text files. The next step was to store the data in a database, and then write web programs around it so we could automate web pages. And over time we just incrementally added software features that evolved into what FRED is today — like we talk about different milestones, features, in the end the thing that’s obvious is that the software is important. It’s not just the data, it’s the data plus software.
Mike Cassidy: I’ve only been here for a year and a half, but my experience here has been, FRED has almost a Skunkworks feel to it inside the bank. Chuck Gascon, myself and Josh Haynes from research started the development of the Excel add-in, and it almost felt like that was a very organic thing to do. We just went out and saw there was a product that needed to be developed, and we developed it. From what I can gather from the past of FRED, I think a lot of that development has been along the same lines. When we developed the world wide web site, that was because there was a young lady here at the bank, her name escapes me, she was very into Mosaic, the tool before Netscape, so she was like, ‘Hey i think this is something we should do,’ and brought that to our attention.
So what’s next for the site?
Basically more and more data. This is what users demand the most. And there’s particular interest in more financial data, such as currencies and commodities.
More importantly, perhaps, is the mission to FRED-ify the world.
There’s tons of data that various sites host (EuroStat, the OECD, the World Bank, etc.) but it’s clunky and horrible to use. This is something that Krugman told us when we asked him: “There’s nothing comparable in ease of use. In a given month I also make use of the IMF database, Eurostat, OECD (behind a paywall), and Millennial Historical Statistics (also paywalled). But all of the others require more steps and are much more awkward.”
When all that data eventually is in a database that can be used with the ease of FRED, it will be a quantum leap for research.
Meanwhile, here are some stats that were provided to us
- 1.9 million visits from 200 countries (42 per cent increase over 2010)
- average 6,000 visits per day
- 14.5 million page views during 2011
- 13,000 visits from Twitter during 2011
- Approximately 600,000 custom FRED Graphs were created during 2011
- GeoFRED received 15,000 visits during 2011
- ALFRED received 48,000 visits during 2011
- During Q4 2011, 14.7 million data calls sent through API
- 15,000 new series added during 2011
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.