Statistics just happen. They're a number. They may form into a pattern, which we may call a trend. But mostly their meaning is at a point in time.
Data, on the other hand is a kind of statistics with special powers. The powers in data allow us to understand the past, read the present, and anticipate the future. Data takes the raw materials of statistics and transforms them into a lens that can look ahead with clarity, and peer around the next corner, and map a set of instructions back to us as to how to modify our business models to move resiliently to the next step.
Before Karl "Chip" Case, who died last week at the age of 69, housing had statistics. After Case teamed up with Yale economist Robert Shiller in the 1980s to create a home value index, based on repeat sales of existing homes, housing began to have data.
Housing needs still more data, although we're in over our heads in statistics, local, regional, national, by demographics, by psychographics, by consumption behavior, etc. But, what Case and Shiller introduced to housing was a lens through which investors, developers, planners, and home builders could look and understand more about the risk and opportunity around the resources they placed into the housing market.
Here's the way Zillow chief analytics officer and chief economist Stan Humphries tips his hat to Chip Case's accomplishment in housing:
Prior to the index Case developed alongside Yale University economist Robert Shiller, there was very little transparency in housing beyond what one could glean at a dusty local registry office or by poring over years of county tax records – which wasn’t much. The kind of “basic” housing data we take for granted today, the ability to see how a given housing market has performed over time and relative to other markets, was simply unavailable prior to Case and Shiller’s pioneering efforts.
Given housing’s outsized impact on both the economy and our everyday lives, it’s almost impossible to understate the importance of Case’s achievements in shining a light on this sector. The events of the past decade alone underscore this – and the Case-Shiller index has been providing this insight for upwards of 30 years.
In no small way, models like those used to power Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, CoreLogic, RealtyTrac and our own sister organization Metrostudy, owe a debt of gratitude to the work and passion of Chip Case. If housing is a confusing, overly-complex, and impossibly opaque market to play in despite all of the measures, metrics, indices, and indicators that underpin it today, imagine what it would be like without the work of Case and Shiller.
New York Times economics writer Nelson D. Schwartz notes:
From tracking four cities, the Case-Shiller data has expanded to cover dozens of cities and thousands of ZIP codes, as well as providing national benchmarks.
Their creation is now produced by Standard & Poor’s and CoreLogic and is known as the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.
“What Case and Shiller put together is really the gold standard for price changes in the housing market,” Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard, said in an interview. “It has the beauty of being both transparent and reliable.”
Both Benjamin Disraeli and Mark Twain both tend to get credit for the line, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Data has the job of making statistics speak the truth, meaningfully, helpfully, profoundly, and elegantly. Quartz contributor Allison Schrager grieves here about how people "don't trust economists anymore," but some they do, and it's because of their willingness to set ideology aside in favor of the truths "the dismal science" reveals. This is the reason we salute Chip Case. His work, and his partnership with Nobel prize winning economist Bob Shiller, allows housing a better understanding of itself, and a chance--if slim--to move forward with a helpful glimpse around the next corner.