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Visualising official statistics

Statistics New Zealand Working Paper No 11–02

Sharleen Forbes, Martin Ralphs, Rosemary Goodyear, Nathaniel Pihama


In general, national statistics offices produce a range of key national economic indicators and population estimates. They may also produce other social, cultural, and environmental statistics, but not always. This paper defines the statistics generated by government agencies, whether from administrative or survey data, as official statistics.

One way to increase the usefulness of these statistics is to present them in forms that are easy for the user to interpret. Increasing computing power and the Internet have massively increased the ability to store, access, and analyse very large amounts of data. The Internet has itself become an analysis tool. This, together with the availability of many new open-source data visualisation methods and spatial tools, has enabled new ways of accessing and interpreting data. These new tools can open up the wealth of information held in official statistics to less statistically literate users, whether government advisors or members of the public. They are not simply presentation tools; they also enable new levels of data exploration and can be useful for the formulation of hypotheses.

This paper demonstrates some recent data visualisation applications that have been used with a variety of official statistics, gives examples of analytical or policy uses, and makes some suggestions for further enhancements. The visualisations include static graphs; dynamic graphs (that show changes over time); interactive graphs (that allow the user to explore and interrogate the data); and mapping tools and software that integrate standard statistical analysis, graphics, and maps.

To read the paper, download or print the PDF from 'Available files' above. If you have problems viewing the file, see Opening files and PDFs.


Forbes, S, Ralphs, M, Goodyear, R, Pihama, N (2001). Visualising official statistics (Statistics New Zealand Working Paper No 11–02). Available from

ISBN 978-0-478-37719-4 (online)
ISSN 1179-934X  (online)

Published August 2011

Below are links to four YouTube videos that illustrate some of the themes in this Working Paper.

New ways of visualising official statistics
Official statistics provide the evidence base for much of government policy but these have traditionally been released in simple, standard, and static tables and graphs. This video is a recording of a seminar given by Adjunct Professor Sharleen Forbes at the University of Auckland demonstrating new graphs and maps (both static and dynamic), interactive graphics, and integrated tables, graphs, and maps that allow users to interrogate and interact with official data. Her examples include multidimensional scatterplots, cartograms, a CPI kaleidoscope, interactive maps, dynamic population pyramids and commuter flows, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder. She also talks about some of the limitations of data visualisation.

Viewing population change (the Australian example)
Dynamic population pyramids containing overlaid graphs of different census and population projection data are now in relatively common usage by national statistical agencies. This video, from the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, is an example of this kind of graphic used to show population growth and decline. Dynamic population pyramids demonstrate this process in action, leading up to and beyond the point (different for each country) where natural increase (growth) shifts to become natural decrease (decline). The Australian tool allows us to see, and compare, the different population changes in each of the Australian states, as well as nationally.

Interrogating the German Consumer Price Index (CPI)
This video, from the website of the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, demonstrates the Price Kaleidoscope, an interactive visualisation of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI is displayed as a circle, the size of each section representing the contribution of that group of commodities to the CPI. The colour, and intensity of colour, of each section shows the percentage change in prices since the last quarter. Users can interrogate the Price Kaleidoscope to extract the exact figures for any commodity group and to quickly access exactly the data they need. As with all these interactive tools, the kaleidoscope is instantly updated on the web as soon as the data is released.

Mapping official statistics in Slovenia
A number of national statistical offices provide a range of indicators on interactive maps. These can then be used for a range of current policy issues. This video, from the website of the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia, shows how the Slovenian Interactive Atlas can indicate if there is a mismatch between where the population lives and the water supply is located, as well as many other issues.

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