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The words of Ben Bernanke at the Fed 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, but it is just greedy): a page on the Bank for International Settlements’ site (www.bis.org/cbanks.htm) 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 (www.federalreserve.org) and China (www.pbc.gov.cn) to the Solomon Islands (www.cbsi.com.sb) and Azerbaijan (www.nba.az). 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 wealth of a country and quality of its website is far from perfect. The Bank of Jamaica (www.boj.org.jm) has one of the most impressive, while the Bank of Japan’s site (www.boj.or.jp) does not. Until recently the BoJ had the worst site of any large organisation I knew - the current one is better, but still not good.
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 form: a reproduction of print documents that cannot be manipulated. It is shown up by the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus (www.nbrb.by), which allows you to download Excel files of key figures from the last five years. Meanwhile, the Banco Central de Bolivia (www.bcb.gov.bo) provides a choice of Excel and pdf for its statistics, and has a nifty interactive calendar that lets you see the inflation and exchange rate in any month since 1999. The Bank of Jamaica 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 just how much functionality they can squeeze out of their sites. The Banco de Mexico site (www.banxico.org.mx) 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 (www.bankofengland.co.uk) 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.
In the last 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 big time.
The European Central Bank (www.ecb.int) 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. If you have had an email 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 (www.cenbank.org). Find out what is happening and leave a post on the bulletin board (click - Report a scam?).
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 (www.federalreserveeducation.org) that includes Fed 101, a beginners’ guide, and signposts to a formidable array of material across the 12 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 (www.frb.bos.org) to learn about ‘the economics of Pro Sports’. Ask Dr Econ on the San Francisco site (www.frbsf.org) to get some serious education, or turn to New York (www.newyorkfed.org) 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 (www.bankofcanada.ca), 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 you can if you are Canadian - I only wish other banks would provide a similar dispute-busting service.