ONS web site – urrgghh

A new ONS website was launched in February. I was delighted that its predecessor (launched in 2011, which brought many apologies from the ONS and was the subject of ridicule, as in this article by Tim Harford) was dispatched in its entirety and I welcomed the new one. It looked much nicer. Sadly, a couple of months on after increasing frustration, I now have to record that, in my humble opinion, it’s different but no better than its predecessor. This site, unlike its predecessor, is redeemable but it needs work on it, and now.

This blog is a reminder to me of today’s issue (there’s a different issue nearly every time I go on the site) and a message to the ONS that something needs to be done. Today I wanted to find migration statistics – how many people migrate here by country each year. (Given the issue is near the top of hot EU referendum issues, I might not be the only person curious to know.) Again I had to resort to phoning the ONS. There is no other website I use regularly where I end up calling the helpline, or giving up, anywhere near half the occasions I use it.

There will probably be an easy way to find this data, if you know what you are doing. Most people do not. They don’t generally (I did not in this case) know what data existed. Those who do know where to get “that” same table they seek every month (or keep a link in the favourites) are spared this humiliation but they ought to be encouraged to look at other data. The sense of serendipity on this site is very low.

The ONS buzz word at the moment is “curious” – a degree of curiosity is what the Bean Review called for. The website will not encourage curiosity. I rang the ONS and they directed me to the right page. At first they offered to email the link. But that’s no good, you learn nothing about the site if that’s the response to users. It reminds of the first days of email. One sent an email and then telephoned the recipient to say that you’d sent an email. Emails were so rare that few of those pioneers would check the inbox out of curiosity to see if one had arrived. And so we have it here – the data is on the ONS website, you just have to call, and they send a link. Except they close at 5pm (4.30 on a Friday). And who would want statistics at weekends!

The main problem with the web site is that a user can never be sure to have stumbled across the latest publication or to have found the data that best suits the need. To be reassured we need to be able to see a menu of sorts. That’s where the old compendia come into their own. I’d have found the table showing arrivals by country and delighted at seeing the next table showing reasons for moving or a breakdown by age. That would be a wonder, feeding curiosity. Dispatching all of the compendia when the (last) new ONS website was introduced in 2011 was nothing short of a crime. Those responsible probably left with their gongs and golden goodbyes. Or perhaps they are still there.

The story of my hunt is below, mainly intended for ONS eyes …………

I want in migration figures by country or nationality. Easy start, in the top tool bar click: Home > Population > Migration, then click on the “International migration” box. I think it is this page, or its equivalent in any other search which is the problem with the new site. If you don’t know what you want, you don’t know what to click next.

You could pick one of these:

“Dataset” doesn’t help as some of the six selected are about population, internal migration or local area estimates – so obviously not about “International migration” which I’d asked for. Clicking on “View all datasets related to international migration” takes me a selection of 70 and it’s obvious that none on the first page are what I want. 

“Publications” takes me to a page with only two documents on it. See ……..Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 17.28.23.png

I can see that I don’t want them. And it’s the same two docs on the page arrived at from the green “View all ….” link. Two documents on migration doesn’t sound many and that’s because when the new website was set up hardly any old documents were moved to it. There is a box on many of the web pages saying: “Need an earlier release? We moved them to The National Archives website, to keep this website as responsive as possible.” But the thought of heading off to another site trying to find (often not very) old publications really makes the heart sink.

The “All data” button on “View all content related to this topic” seems to offer up the same 70 series as above along side user requested data. The latter is interesting if you’re just browsing but very unlikely to deliver what I want. The “All publications” page throws up a rag bag of 10 articles including some analysis from the 2011 census.

Back to the start, I plug “international migration by country” into the search bar. 533 results! Choosing only the publications cuts it to 38 results but the 10 on the first page are no use. So, deep breath, I click on the “data”, offering me 456 datasets.

The top one looks quite promising. “Long-term international migration 2.02, Country of last or next residence, UK and England and Wales”. Unfortunately that has country groupings, only offering country data for a handful of the largest countries. So close.

Another is headed: “International Passenger Survey 4.05, Main reason for migration by country of last or next residence” which looks promising. It has the info but as it also adds in reason for migration the data are spread over three sheets and there’d be a large element of work to remove and then merge sheets. Not ideal.

(Note: From seeing a data link, it takes five clicks to get to the data. Click on the link, next click “Current” then the “xls” button, then “save” and then open it. Why not go to it directly or at least more quickly?)

What I do notice – though I’d say this is not what a normal user should be expected to deduce – is that the more detailed datasets have a tag “Released on 26 November 2015”. So perhaps that was the last release of an annual dataset. The common element in their title is “International Passenger Survey”, so I put that in search. Oddly that delivers 1566 items – more than I had before! I have no idea which of the 1361 datasets are for me so I try clicking on the publications button. But, urrgh, all bar one on the first 10 are nothing to do with migration at all, mostly being about trade or productivity. So did search just pick up the first word “International” to deliver results?

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 18.09.17.png

(Note: Minor irritation is that the “Results per page: x” button is set at a default of 10 and has to reset to 50 on each page. That’s a fag when you are doing this sort of search.)

Reversing out of “publications”, the top dataset is “International passenger survey time series dataset“. Great. Or not. It’s all about tourism! Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 18.21.30.png

At which point I had the brilliant idea of searching for “released on 26 November 2015”! Sadly, that delivered “BOP:EX:SA:Textile fibres: SITC 26“, “Underlying births data from the National Population Projections Accuracy Report, released July 2015“, and “LG Gross Debt (Unconsolidated) Total: Maastricht News ReleaseTable 2“, among loads of other data I did not want.

And that’s when I called the ONS!











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