ONS weighs up how best to count the UK’s sharing economy

Statisticians are exploring how to measure the UK’s rapidly growing “sharing economy”, where consumers trade time, assets and talents through platforms such as Airbnb and TaskRabbit.

Amid criticism that official statistics fail to capture the full picture of Britain’s modern economy, the Office for National Statistics has been planning to update its surveys to better measure the new ways people consume and trade goods and services.

The ONS will publish on Tuesday a feasibility study into how it could measure the sharing economy, where people use online marketplaces and social networks to buy, swap and share assets such as rooms and cars, as well as services such as cleaning or business consultancy.

A government-ordered review has called for the ONS to be more innovative and for economic statistics to be brought up to date.

The ONS has been speaking to businesses and members of the public to establish how well the sharing economy is understood, aiming to add new questions to its surveys. The article on Tuesday will also explore how statisticians could better use data from the public sector and data from companies.

In his review of official statistics published last month, the former Bank of England deputy governor Sir Charlie Bean estimated that if the digital economy was fully captured it could add as much as 0.75 percentage points to the UK’s growth rate.

Bean used the example of people booking holidays. In the past they may have paid a travel agent, bought a map or a guidebook and then paid to make calls home once on holiday. Now holidaymakers can make their own bookings online, use Google Maps once away and call home on WhatsApp or Skype. In other words, people are using services that are free or paid for by advertising rather than paid for by consumers, and methods of measuring the economy risk overlooking such free services.

The review highlighted the rise of the sharing economy and noted that London has produced 72 sharing economy startups, the third largest number in the world, behind only San Francisco and New York.

The economist Diane Coyle, known for her work on GDP figures, recently estimated that 3% of the UK workforce provided a service through the sharing economy. Her report with the trade body Sharing Economy UK (SEUK) said that while such activities were growing rapidly in the UK, it was impossible to track their contribution through official economic statistics.

Ahead of the ONS study, SEUK’s chair, Debbie Wosskow, said the UK must do more to accurately measure and “harness the power” of the sharing economy to address its poor productivity record.

“We welcome ONS’ efforts to further recommend how the sharing economy can be measured – better data can and will make for a more informed policy debate. However, we need these recommendations to be followed with actions to ensure the UK remains the true home of the global sharing economy,” said Wosskow, who is also founder of Love Home Swap, a home exchange company.

In a nod to the growing importance of such online platforms, the government recently announced new tax breaks for money earned in the sharing economy. Intended to boost the number of “micro-entrepreneurs” who make small amounts of money online, the tax allowances were unveiled by George Osborne in his March budget.

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