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Using Real-time Indicators for Decision-making

During the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government was, to some extent, ‘flying blind’, given the inability of official economic statistics to keep pace with the unfolding crisis. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was able to supplement these data with novel real-time indicators (RTIs) such as consumer card spending, or online job vacancies data.

This article reviews the UK’s experience in using RTIs to inform economic policy-making during the pandemic, with a view to distilling some lessons for future use.

What are RTIs?

RTIs are data that are updated with a high frequency and can provide early insights where traditional statistics are not yet available. Opportunities to create RTIs have exploded in the digital age, moving beyond the use of data explicitly collected for measurement purposes (e.g., surveys) and taking advantage of data collected incidentally about agents’ behaviour. Such information includes administrative tax data, google searches, or credit or debit card purchases (see chart below). These data can offer greater granularity than aggregated national statistics.

Aggregate CHAPS-based indicators of credit and debit card purchases, non-seasonally adjusted, nominal prices


Source: Economic activity and social change in the UK, real-time indicators - Office for National Statistics (

Officials must weigh trade-offs carefully in using RTIs. Some issues to consider include:

Building blocks

The ability to deploy RTIs during the Covid-19 pandemic did not develop overnight, but relied on a prior build-up of skills, infrastructure, as well as legal frameworks and processes.


This blog post is based on a report published by the Overseas Development Institute.



How RTIs can supplement official government statistics.
David Rosenfeld , Independent consultant, UNESCO and ODI.