By Bradley Osburn
Way back in the days of Betamax tapes and rocker hair, if you wanted statistical population or economic data you would have had to turn to a publication like the Florida Statistical Abstract, produced for many years by UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR).
Today, a simple search for www.bebr.ufl.edu opens up a massive, ever-updating database to the state and private entities like GRU, Ford and Florida KidCare.
BEBR began in 1929 as part of the Warrington College of Business Administration. In 2011, the bureau moved to the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences because it wasn’t producing data specifically for businesses and the liberal arts school better fit its mission of collecting, analyzing and generating economic and demographic data on Florida and its local areas; conducting economic and demographic research that will inform public policy and business decision making; and distributing data and research findings throughout the state and the nation.
BEBR Director Christopher McCarty, Ph.D., has been with BEBR since 1987. For years, he said, the bureau was known as UF’s data warehouse. Now, BEBR employs 15 full-time staff and 100 to 150 interviewers and supervisors in its new Ayers Technology Plaza offices and provides analysis of economic indicators, a population program that provides estimates about growth and a 93-station telephone survey lab that makes hundreds of calls every month to gather data directly from citizens.
This collected data can be used in several ways. The Center for Disease Control’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System uses population data to estimate epidemic spread, local areas use the Florida Price of Living Index to do things like decide what to pay teachers and UF Health is working with BEBR to map relationships across its colleges to see how all of its parts work together.
In addition, BEBR puts out a consumer confidence report on the last Friday of every month that is compiled from the responses of 500 Florida households and is designed to predict consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of GDP for the state, McCarty said. Questions include how the responder feels about the current conditions their finances and job availability, and future expectations about business conditions over the next 6 to 12 months.
BEBR also spent some time recently analyzing unemployment data and found that the middle class is bottoming out and that for some reason businesses are hesitant to begin hiring again at pre-recession levels. Unemployment is dropping, he said, but the question is whether that is because of jobs being created or because people are just leaving the labor force and giving up the search. Many of the jobs that the state had before the recession just may not be coming back.
McCarty wants BEBR to keep growing and doing that kind of analysis while striving to become the footprint of the liberal arts in Innovation Square. He hopes to achieve this by opening the center up for training in areas like social media analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) for graduate students and professors. Bringing in business and economics students to train on how to use the BEBR’s massive database opens up opportunities for cross-college collaborations, which McCarty said he would also like to see. What BEBR does is a service people value, he said, and is one that has become almost vital to the proper functioning of the state.
“I like to use the analogy that when you turn on the lightswitch you don’t always know why the light turns on, or what’s behind it, but you get the light,” he said. “We’re like the electric company for information.”