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How does the World Bank code its indicators?

A systematic coding convention is an important part of database design. Variable codes should be both convenient to use and easy to remember. Codes that are long and descriptive are slow to enter and result in formulas that are difficult to read. Codes that are too short or constructed by arbitrary schemes or numbers are difficult to remember.

The Catalog of Economic Time Series (CETS) is a glossary of standard acronyms for the most commonly used social and economic data maintained in the central time series databases of the World Bank. The purpose is to provide an inventory of data available in our World Development Indicators (WDI) and International Debt Statistics (IDS) databases and to suggest a general coding convention for time series data.

Topic (2 digits)
General Subject (3 digits)
Specific Subject (4 digits)
Extensions (2 digits each)

For example: DT.DIS.PRVT.CD would read "External debt disbursements by private creditors in current US dollars."

The Topic code identifies a broad grouping based on functional similarities. All national accounts items begin with N; balance of payments with B; external debt indicators with D, social indicators with S, etc. Two-digit topic codes permit a finer breakdown of data at the highest level. For example, NE identifies national accounts expenditures, BN identifies balance of payments net items, and SH identifies social health indicators.

The General Subject code specifies a broad subject area within a particular topic. Examples of general subjects are exports (EXP) in the national accounts or transfers (TRF) in the balance of payments.

The Specific Subject code further identifies a particular indicator. For example, private nonguaranteed debt (DPNG) and official creditors (OFFT) are specific subjects under a particular general debt subject such as disbursements (DIS) or interest payments (INT).

The extension fields (no more than three) are available for further clarification, as required. Examples are a breakdown of male (MA) and female (FE), current local currency (CN), constant local currency (KN), current US dollars (CD) and constant US dollars (KD), and data sources such as the World Trade Organization (WT) or the United Nations (UN). The extension ZS is frequently used to denote a variable calculated as a share of a total; and ZG denotes a growth rate. An extension such as GD (for GDP) or EX (for exports) may be used to designate the denominator of a derived series.

Please note that creating CETS codes is not an exact science. Though the Data Group has the above guidelines, there have been individual interpretations through the years and at times series have been coded inconsistently or incorrectly. Social and environmental indicators in particular are not as easily coded as some of the more structured topics such as national accounts and external debt. Series names may have changed, and the code—which we have retained—may not match exactly with the new name. Also some components may not be unique. They may refer to different subjects depending on the main topic code. When creating new codes, we recommend using the current codes as a guide if they share a common component. It is also important to anticipate possible future codes for the same general subject so the proper structure is in place.

Here you’ll find a file listing the indicators in the WDI database (which includes the IDS indicators), with the second worksheet containing code breakdowns and descriptions for each component.

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