This year, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis commemorates 100 years of service to the Eighth District and the nation. The St. Louis Fed has released a series of essays examining the Bank’s history and its future. Today, the On the Economy blog looks at the history of Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), the Bank’s signature database.
FRED is a descendent of the data publications created by Homer Jones, who was the research director of the St. Louis Fed from 1958 to 1971. Jones was a proponent of making economic data widely available, allowing policymakers and members of the public alike to judge for themselves the state of the economy and the outcome of policy.
The technology of the time was paper, so the data were printed and sent out via the U.S. postal system. Employees from the 1970s and 1980s have said there was intense pressure from reporters, economists, students and college professors, among others, to get the main data publication—the weekly U.S. Financial Data (USFD), still popular today—out on Thursday afternoons.
These paper data publications translated well to online posting. FRED got its start in 1991 as a free electronic bulletin board (a precursor to the Internet) and offered “free up-to-the-minute economic data via modems connected to personal computers,”1 providing data from the USFD. The response was described as “staggering” and “overwhelming.”2 Initially, FRED had 620 users who were limited to one hour a day and given access to 30 data series that could be downloaded at a modem speed of up to 14.4 kilobits per second. Eventually, data series from other St. Louis Fed publications were added, with FRED housing more than 300 series in 1993.
The next innovation for FRED was moving to the Internet in 1995. FRED contained 865 data series by then, and the site was accessed an average of 6,000 times per week. At the time, there were only an estimated 12 million people on the Internet. Over the next 20 years, FRED evolved quickly. By 2004, FRED had more than 2,900 economic time series and offered data downloads in Excel and text formats. Graphs of the data were also possible. By November 2010, FRED had expanded to more than 24,000 data series, which included more than 21,000 regional data series. Today, FRED has more than 237,000 regional, national and international economic data series, with the data coming from more than 60 reporting agencies around the world. It operates on a high-speed Ethernet service (with download speeds in the millions of bits per second), provides sophisticated graphing software, is available via apps on smartphones and tablets, can be mapped, is accessible via Excel and is used in classrooms all over.
What began as a simple, printed data publication has grown into a sophisticated and successful vehicle for sharing important economic data with anyone around the world.
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Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or of the Federal Reserve System.