What central banks are doing to raise interest
At their best the world’s central banks are showing how a website can be used to provide information for a range of audiences, from professional analysts to teachers and students, in inventive and even inspired ways.
|Bank for International Settlements||Bank of Jamaica|
|National Bank of the Republic of Belarus||Bank of Japan|
|Banco Central de Bolivia||Banco de Mexico|
|Bank of England||European Central Bank|
|Central Bank of Nigeria||“(external)Federal Reserve Bank>education”:http://www.federalreserveeducation.org|
|Federal Reserve Bank, Boston||Federal Reserve Bank, San Francisco|
|Federal Reserve Bank, New York||Bank of Canada|
The words of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, are being followed even more closely than usual at the moment – playing a spotlight on central banks and, I bet, making their websites busy places. What the professionals may not notice is that some of the banks have also been using their sites to serve a different audience – citizens, and even their children.
Every country, I think, has a central bank website (the US has 13): a page on the Bank for International Settlements’ site lists them. This in itself is intriguing, because I can’t think of any other way of viewing a comparable creation from 160 countries – ranging from the US and China to the Solomon Islands and Azerbaijan. Websites tend to reflect the countries and cultures that produce them – but they also reflect the attention paid to them. Some countries have realised that a good site is a low-cost way of transmitting a positive national image to an influential audience. Others have not.
This is why the relationship between the wealth of a country and the quality of its website is far from perfect. The Bank of Jamaica has one of the most impressive, while the Bank of Japan does not. In fact until recently it had the worst site of any large organisation I know – the current one is better, but still not good.
Exploiting flexibility and pushing boundaries
The web should be a godsend for a central bank. One of its main jobs is to produce, collect and disseminate huge quantities of analysis and data. Websites will not get indigestion if you pour words and numbers into them and, if properly designed, will allow people to find what they want easily. This much has been realised by every bank – even the Bank of Japan has a mass of research papers and statistics.
But many central banks are providing a better service by exploiting the web’s flexibility. All the Bank of Japan’s data is in PDF format: a reproduction of print documents that cannot be manipulated. It is shown up by the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus, which allows you to download Excel files of key figures from the past five years; by the Banco Central de Bolivia, which as well as providing a choice of Excel and PDF for its statistics has a nifty interactive calendar that lets you see the inflation and exchange rate in any month since 1999. And by the Bank of Jamaica, which is particularly good at providing signposts to publications. Look at the filtering system in the news release section for evidence.
A few banks have been pushing back the boundaries, seeing how just how much functionality they can squeeze out of their sites. Banco de Mexico used to be way ahead of the game, and is still very impressive with the drilldown facility in its Economic and Financial Indicators section. But the Bank of England has now leapt ahead. Its Statistical Interactive Database is a thing of wonder, allowing drilldown to a huge number of statistics which can then be exported in several formats, including XML. This means they can be automatically fed to an RSS reader (a sort of personal newswire service), so that professionals get the figures as they are published. Modern stuff.
Informing the public…
In the past five years some central banks have been taking their public accountability remit far more seriously, in two main ways. First, they have used their sites as noticeboards to alert people to possible problems. Second, they have taken to education in a big way.
The European Central Bank has an excellent section on banknotes and how to check they are genuine. It uses animation – with the option of a souped-up Flash version – to show how different notes can be verified by tilting the hologram, checking the perforations and so on. The Bank of England has a similar system in its ‘virtual tour’ of banknotes. Elsewhere, if you have had an e-mail from someone claiming to be a relative of a dead African leader wanting to export currency – and many of us have – click the 419 link on the Central Bank of Nigeria site. Find out what is happening and leave a post on the bulletin board (click ‘Report a scam’).
…and educating everyone
The US Federal Reserve banks do not shine in their service for professionals, but they are leading on education. The Fed has a special site that includes Fed 101, a beginners’ guide, and signposts to a formidable array of material across the Fed bank sites. If you are a teacher, choose the level (from elementary school to college), subject and type of material you want, and examine the possibilities across the network. Try, for example, Peanuts and Crackerjacks on the Boston site to learn about “the economics of Pro Sports”. Ask Dr Econ on the San Francisco site to get some serious education, or turn to New York for a role-playing game on the Federal Open Market Committee. There is a huge amount here.
But if I had to choose one educational (and also fun) device, I would go for the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator. In the Rates and Statistics section of this excellent site, you can find out what a basket of goods in 1914 (or any year since) would cost now (or in any year in between). If you have ever had an argument about just what has happened to prices since you were a kid, this is the place to settle it. Or it is if you are Canadian – I only wish other banks would provide a similar dispute-busting service.
First published on ft.com 16.06.06
First published on 21 June, 2006