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Reflecting on the Family Finances Survey Users Conference 2020

At Registry Trust, we always look for ways in which our data could be used and integrated with other financial metrics. The Financial Stress Tracker is an example of this. By using various measures of financial vulnerability, we were able to provide a holistic look at the landscape of consumer debt across the UK.

Due to the current economic crisis evolving from the global pandemic, it is more important than ever to look to use different types of measures and metrics to provide real time understanding on how the crisis is emerging on the ground for individuals.

On Wednesday 8th July, I attended the Family Finances Survey Users Conference 2020 organised by the UK Data Service in collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics. The programme included papers from data producers and researchers who use surveys such as the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey and the Family Resources Survey. Despite not centred on COVID-19, papers highlighted relevent updates to surveys that had been influenced by the pandemic.

The conference was really insightful and it was interesting to see how the Data Producer’s landscape has had to adapt, quickly, due to the crisis. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my thoughts that come out of the talks about how data production has adjusted to, and for, the pandemic and what our work at Registry Trust can take from this.

1.Data has become live (or as real-time as possible)

During the crisis, to get an understanding of how it was emerging on the ground, data producers had to create surveys and obtain information in much smaller time frames than previously used. For example, the ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey would usually be conducted over eight months of the year with a 10 day field time for the survey. Since coronavirus, survey findings are now released weekly with a field time reduced to 4 days. By using a pre-existing survey, the ONS have been able to utilise an engaged population as well as be reassured by a tested, robust methodology. Further, this has meant that publications can be made weekly due to the quicker turn around on the survey.

At Registry Trust we have already seen the importance of this. We chose to publish a monthly breakdown of our data out of sync with our usual data publishing schedule. The decision to do this was fuelled by the idea of tracking and transparency. By allowing our data to be accessible at a smaller, more granular detail then provided normally, observers and decision-makers can base decisions on actual realities opposed to anticipated conclusions.

2. Toplines are important in the short term

The drawback of relying on live data means that it is constantly evolving. We have this experience with the Register as every day we receive new judgments, new satisfactions and amendments. Dealing with a dynamic data set can be difficult and is why when reporting on live data it is better to use toplines and quick assessments. In doing so, the insightful glance into on the ground realities is achieved, but allows room for adjustment should other contributing factors emerge or become insignificant. In the short-term, analysis needs to focus on the what, not the how or the why.

3. Prepare to compare

As we move further through the crisis and finally enter a period of recovery, reflection will be imperative. Constantly reflecting back and breaking down time into different measureable periods will be important both to understanding who and where needs help, but also to understand metrics further. Looking back can tell us a lot about going forward.

Take the example of a judgment. In a piece we recently wrote about judgments and the Global Financial Crisis, it revealed the ways in which judgments are a barometer through which assessments of financial impacts can be made. This was evidenced by assessing the movements in judgment level seen at local geographic level. At different phases of the crisis, specific movements in judgments represented the lived effects of the GFC. To do this, we used the example of Blaenau Gwent, Wales which was the local authority which saw the greatest swings in judgment levels both ways. When put together as a whole in reflection, it was clear that the sequence of movements together showed greatest financial vulnerability, confirmed by other financial measures.

4. Opportunity to streamline and modernise methods

The above has highlighted what crises can reveal about metrics in and of themselves. One of the major comments in the conference about the adapted format of surveys in the COVID-19 era was digitalisation, and where this is not possible telephone based orchestration. It was mentioned that this was an intention for some surveys in the future, but it was accelerated when face-to-face contact was impossible, yet data production had become more important than ever.

When methods are uprooted, it is the perfect time for change, as it provides a blank page whereby everything needs to be redrawn. A lot of us will have experienced this in our every-day lives, and having seen how adaptable we are, it encourages us to have the confidence to change this in our working styles. I think it will be a positive outcome of the crisis if we see ongoing strides towards more modern methods for data production as it means social data can maintain relevancy and accessibility.

Overall, the conference was a really interesting day where I had the opportunity to learn about all the different ways data producers and researchers are operating in a time like this. I will take on board the reflection points above and apply them to the work I do here at Registry Trust, to ensure our data is relevant, transparent and contributing to Public Good.

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