Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 12, Issue 2, 1998

Adding Value to Business and Economic Data

Catherine Sladen, Andy Beharrell and Dan Brickley
Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol


Biz/ed [] is an educational web site which locates,assesses and organises quality networked information of relevance to business and economics students and educators. Funded partly by corporate subscriptions and partly by the Electronic Libraries (eLib) programme [], the project is committed to offering users access to a wide variety of data. Given the diverse audience which Biz/ed serves, it is important for the project to offer data that can be of interest and use to both schools and universities. This paper will deal with how data can be obtained, utilised, disseminated and most importantly how value can be added by the use of supporting materials.

Obtaining Raw Data

The primary purpose of hosting data on Biz/ed is to encourage students to use and manipulate numeric data to support their understanding of business and economics concepts. Appropriate use as well as understanding issues of bias and (in)accuracy is a key part of many courses in this subject area. To this end, Biz/ed provide both access to raw data and supporting materials to help students to understand and effectively use complex information.

Obtaining such data has been the result of relationships established with key providers who wish to have a presence in this market and have all donated subsets of what is ordinarily an expensive commercial product. To date the project has obtained data from the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS); Extel, part of FT Information; National Bureau of Economic Research's (NBER) Penn World Data Tables; and the US Census Bureau.

The project is keen to build relationships with other data providers to complement the existing data on the site. Thus far the combination of national statistics (from the ONS), company financial accounts (from Extel) and world economic indicators (from the Penn World Data Tables) has been a great attraction for users of the site, indeed the access statistics reveal that the Data section home page is the fourth most popular page on the site.

Adding Functional Value

Making complex multi-dimensional datasets available in an accessible manner has been a major challenge for the project. In particular, the need to store the information in a searchable database has become apparent. The original approach adopted was to batch convert the raw data into a number of static HTML pages. Subsequently this was improved upon by making the data searchable using a simple and somewhat ad-hoc database system written in Perl.

As the site grew, the number of similar searchable facilities on the site increased: glossaries, datasets, addressbooks and of course the Internet Resources Catalogue. To increase the maintainability of the site, we are currently rationalising the way in which we store structured information. Instead of using a number of home-grown solutions, these facilities are being moved into a relational database storage system. This should make it much simpler to manage and manipulate both textual and numeric data, and will enable our experiments with the online graphing of the Penn World Tables time-series data to be generalised to other datasets. More importantly, this reorganisation will make it possible to create a richer and more intuitive interface to the expanding range of facilities on the site.

One example of how data has been manipulated by Biz/ed is economic indicators supplied by the ONS. Data from the ONS has been available on the Biz/ed web site since its launch in January 1996. Access to the data is through a simple web interface where students select options from a short series of screens. Users can opt to have the data returned in one of three formats: as HTML, as Comma separated text on screen or they can download comma separated text to be used in another application such as an Excel Spreadsheet. Biz/ed uses this standard form interface for all its datasets, so that users only have to learn how to use the data once.

With the acquisition of Average Earnings Index data, Biz/ed was able to offer users the opportunity to download raw data and manipulate it in a spreadsheet package. The ONS section of Biz/ed has been substantially improved with the addition of historical and educational information to show users how they can obtain further information from the ONS.

Adding Educational Value

To meet this need the project has consciously presented its data in one format and created differentiated supporting materials. To date these materials have been aimed at students following standard courses at GCSE, A level and GNVQ levels. The problem for the project was that the range of abilities of students using the data is very broad. This is true, not only in terms of economics and business knowledge, but also in terms of the IT skills that users have. This meant that any supporting materials had to be carefully differentiated for the end user to add real educational value. They also had to be capable of supporting a variety of uses. Some Biz/ed users use a simple (and probably slow) dial-up connection to work independently, some use a similar style connection from school or college libraries and some will be using the materials in a whole class situation. This requires a range of different approaches in the materials to try to satisfy all these different patterns of use.

A further problem is that with such an extensive range of data, students can quickly become bemused and muddled. There is no clear focus for them and this can often generate a natural reluctance to use the data effectively. The materials needed to be carefully written to give a clear and progressive feel for the data, which would then give users the confidence for further investigation.

The design for the materials had to satisfy all these criteria, and help students to develop a range of skills. The main skills that students need to develop for A-level and GNVQ courses, and that the supporting materials had to help them with are:

The overall framework for the materials that was chosen was an attempt to combine all these factors, and yet still make the materials clear and intuitive to navigate around. For example, the Extel data is based around a company's balance sheet and profit and loss account information with a few extra variables added.

The first stage was therefore to prepare pages that gave an explanation of these key financial statements, and their importance. To help reinforce these, a worksheet on each was also prepared, which was linked to directly from the explanations (for more detail on the design of Biz/ed worksheets - see below). This part of the materials was intended to help students appreciate the nature and context of the data.

The next stage was then to draw up a more detailed set of materials to help users with the extensive range of the Extel data. The most logical structure immediately seemed to be one based around each individual variable. When users first go into the supporting materials, they are faced with two selection boxes: one to select the variable and one to select the level. To give the progression of skills that we identified above, there are three options to choose from:

The first of these satisfies the knowledge criterion and enables users to instantly access a clear explanation of what they are looking at. The second option then looks at any business theory relating to that particular variable. For example, for the variable 'stocks', there is an examination of different stock control systems, the costs of holding stocks and related financial problems. This furthers the user's knowledge, but also gives them the basis they need to be able to apply theory to the data. The third option then brings many of these strands together.

The worksheets were designed around the standard model which has been developed for Biz/ed's Internet teaching materials (for more detail on these see below). These materials are progressive and use a range of different techniques to help students develop all the skills identified above. The worksheets make extensive use of the data, but always in a focused and carefully directed fashion. They only require a limited amount of on-line time for their completion, to allow for schools or colleges with slow connections and all could potentially be used as the basis for group-work. The questions in the worksheets were carefully designed to ensure that students attempt one or more of the following:

This may at times involve short, precise analytical answers and at other times longer and more discursive answers.

However, it was also clear that students rarely learn in a direct linear fashion and it was important that there were always different directions that students could take through the materials. This is particularly the case with business data where there are often complex relationships between variables with a considerable degree of interdependence.

This is where hypertext links can be so valuable. Throughout the materials, when another variable is mentioned it is linked (if appropriate) to the relevant section for that variable. The link is also to the most appropriate level - often that is simply the explanation, but sometimes related theories or worksheets are also linked. This enables users to take the direction through the materials that is most appropriate to them.

To ensure that this flexibility didn't become a distraction with users getting lost within the materials, all the materials were put into the standard Biz/ed templates with their associated navigation tools. This navigation was supplemented with additional navigation bars for the Extel materials, so that users can easily return to a particular part of the materials or the data itself.

The standard format that we have developed for Biz/ed worksheets adheres to the following pattern:

With regards to Internet links authors of worksheets are encouraged to use relatively few to maintain the clear focus of the worksheet and to minimise necessary on-line time. Links should also be carefully selected for their consistency, quality of language, longevity as a page or site and breadth of analysis. Wherever possible sites with high levels of graphics should be avoided and links should be at the top directory level, to allow for any changes in the directory structure in the future.

Following on from this work and offering supporting materials to the higher education community will be more problematic with the absence of a standard curriculum. Research has been conducted through BizNet 2000 [], a DfEE funded project which has been looking at the possibilities of creating a standard business studies BA degree. Thus far the project has not reported its findings, but certainly the development of supporting materials for a higher education audience could be informed by this project.


It is clear from the experience and evidence presented above that work on presenting data to support students at all levels is still in its early stages. Due to limited resources, Biz/ed will only ever be able to provide users with 'snapshot' data. The project places great value on providing supporting materials and it is hoped that by encouraging students to develop data handling skills at A level and GNVQ, they will be able to apply these skills on the larger scale data available to them at degree level.

The Authors

Catherine Sladen, Project manager for Biz/ed, which is based at the Institute for Learning and Research Technology, University of Bristol.

Andy Beharrell, Head of economics and business at Clifton College, Bristol. Seconded to work as curriculum developer for Biz/ed with particular responsiblity for developing Tutor Support, a resource bank of materials for teachers and students at GCSE, A level and GNVQ.

Dan Brickley, Biz/ed Technical Officer responsible for the development and implementation of technical solutions, as well as working on a number of other projects within the ILRT, such as Grapevine, BioMed, ROADS and DESIRE.

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