At the ONS’ sprawling cellular base camp in Newport, south Wales, the corridors are long and all the doors bear long numbers, a decimalized warren. There is a number for everything here. In the Life Events, Mortality Analysis department a book, two inches thick, lists the code for every kind of demise — W27 means death by contact with a nonpowered hand-tool, L60.0 is an ingrowing nail, T63.4 is a centipede bite and so on. From birth to death, our lives are codified and digitized. Why?
“Data helps you make sense of a really complicated world. It helps you understand what is really going on, and separate that from anecdote, from spin, from misinformation,” ONS Director-General Glen Watson said.
As he sees it, British lives are built upon the work of the ONS. The thickness of water pipes that deliver your morning shower; the arrangement of roads that take you where you are going; the location of schools, offices, supermarkets; the stock on supermarket shelves. His faith in the ONS is personal as well as professional.
“I might — touch wood, I haven’t been — at some point in my life I might be diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “The first thing I’d want to know, I’d go straight to the ONS page on cancer survival rates. We publish all of that.”
When he talks about data, he cups his hands as if he has caught a butterfly.
In the Labour Force Survey office, an analyst is looking at the latest figures on a spreadsheet. Row upon row of digits fill the screen. Each row is a person. Each column is their answer to a question. There are 76 columns, but they would go on for ever if you wanted them to.
“You can’t fall off the edge of the world here,” the analyst, Mark Chandler, said.
Whatever an interviewee’s answer, there is a code for it. Person 1 has given the answer 31, which means they are retired from paid work. Someone else is a 2: self-employed. Here is a “25”: not in work, looking after their family or home.
These answers have been collected by interviewers like Masterman, and by the ONS call center in Titchfield, Hampshire, southern England. Listening in to telephone conversations, you can hear people combing the breadth of their circumstances in order to check the right box.
Which part of this gentleman’s body is worse for arthritis?
“Take your pick,” he said.
The plastic of his handset creaks as he gets comfortable.
“Today it’s the shoulder. It could be the knee, the arms, the legs, the hands,” he said.
One operator is wrestling with the fact that a man does not know his daughter’s qualifications. A woman on another line is saying: “She’s dead, my lovely.”
All over the country, answerphones are clicking into action. Another operator is trying to find out if a woman is looking for work.
“It’s a difficult question, because if the job is rewarding I would like to work,” the woman said.
So is that a yes or a no?
“A no,” she decides, because no one should have to keep working until they are 70.
“It has been known to find people dead on the toilet at work when they are 65,” she said.
There is no box for that.
It is a funneling process, a sifting through a lifetime of all that has made a person the person they are, shaking out every irrelevance, until the only thing left in the sieve is an affirmative or negative.