One of the inescapable aspects of life for an international data collector is the need to know your product measurement units, be it a litre of petrol, a kilogram of roast beef or 370 grams of Bonne Maman jam. Every mall we visit, every supermarket aisle we peruse and every bar drinks menu we scan has a unit of something or other. Clearly, these units are very important when it comes to analysing price data sets since a misquoted unit can have a significant impact on a standardised price and therefore a calculated average price. See a previous blog for more information on price analysis.
In 193 of the 196 countries of the world, the prices we collect are for metric measurements (mostly). Personally, I find this makes life a lot easier as I like a straightforward decimal system. Of the three countries which don’t officially use the metric system the USA is one of them. So, on my recent trip it has been all ounces, gallons and pounds rather than grams, litres and kilograms. The other two countries which still officially use the imperial system of measurements are Liberia in West Africa and Myanmar in South East Asia. Both of these nations have indicated that they plan to implement metrification in the future though, leaving the USA on its own. Of course there are exceptions, one of the most notable being in the UK where road distances are in miles and not kilometres. In my earlier trip to Canada I discovered some bars were quoting beer volumes in ounces too. And of course in the UK if you go to a local pub you’ll be served a pint rather than a half litre – those extra 68 millilitres can make all the difference!
To complicate matters further the USA uses a different imperial system to the globally recognised standard. They call it the US customary system and this, again, is important when it comes to standardising the prices at the analysis stage of my data collection. For example, a gallon of petrol (or gas) in the States equates to 3.785 metric litres but an imperial gallon elsewhere is 4.546 litres. That’s a 20% difference which could have a significant impact on a cost of living index overall – particularly so if that item has a high weighting within the shopping basket.
Anyway, moving on from measurements and back to my travels! I finished my US trip recently in the mighty Lone Star state of Texas. With over 26 million citizens it’s the second most populated US state (behind California) and, being larger than Germany and Italy combined at almost 700,000 square kilometres, it is the largest of the 48 contiguous states. It is also one of three main ‘powerhouse’ regions of the States when it comes to economic might and influence. Together with the states of California and New York, Texas is home to significantly more Fortune 500 companies than the other states. Texas is also home to four of the eleven most populated cities in the country – Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin – and grosses more dollars a year in exports than California and New York combined.
I mentioned last week that if California were a country its economy would be 8th in the world. If Texas were a country it wouldn’t be quite so high up but sitting 14th in the list of national economies ahead of the likes of Mexico, South Korea and Indonesia is no mean feat. It also has a quarter of the country’s known petroleum deposits and produces a quarter of the country’s natural gas. But it’s not all about fossil fuels – Texas is also home to some of the largest wind farms in the world and produces by far the most wind energy of any US state.
Although the capital of Texas is Austin it was in the two cities of Houston and Dallas that I was out and about collecting data. While some US cities such as New York and San Francisco have a somewhat European vibe to them and others, such as Miami, have a Latino vibe in Texas I very much got an American vibe – if that makes sense. The cars seem a little bit bigger, the roads seem a little wider, and there were definitely more people wearing cowboy hats.
It was also a lot hotter. Indeed, during the summer months Texas has the second highest average state temperature (after its neighbour Louisiana) and it’s not wise to spend too much time out walking on the sidewalks (or pavements!). This is just as well as the car is king in Texas and the sidewalks seem to be constructed as token efforts to make the streets appear more ‘foot friendly’. Wherever I am in the world I like to move from shop to shop on foot as much as possible. That way you get to soak up more of the atmosphere of a place, you come across little gems of information which are useful on the data collection front plus a bit of exercise is always good for the soul! However, in the States it can sometimes be a losing battle. You’ll be walking down a sidewalk which suddenly comes to a stop with no obvious way of how to continue without getting a twisted ankle from the now uneven roadside or coming a cropper under the wheels of the multitude of passing cars. On the plus side though there are plenty of parking spaces wherever you go, which I know is often a problem in the more compact cities of the UK, for example. I didn’t see a single traffic warden on my trip either!
After leaving Texas I took a week out to drive through one of the few parts of the States which I’d not already seen – the southern states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Most of the photos above are from that road trip and I hope you enjoy them! I’ll be back soon with tales from my next data collection mission, taking in Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Angola.