Jun
24
2009

What is the CIA World Factbook?

CIA World Factbook 1995 cover (PD)

CIA World Factbook 1995 cover (PD)

The United States Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA), was created in 1947 to provide senior US policymakers with information related to national security. The CIA collects information (“intelligence”), correlates it in relation to national security, and disseminates it appropriately.

Here’s what the CIA says about itself on its Kids’ Page:

The CIA is an independent US government agency that provides national security “intelligence” to key US leaders so they can make important, informed decisions. CIA employees gather intelligence (or information) in a variety of ways, not just by “spying” like you see in the movies or on TV (though we do some of that, too).

Along the way, they collect statistical information about the world’s countries, which they make available to everyone by publishing it in the CIA World Factbook. People from other countries find it quite remarkable that a bunch of spies should freely share the statistics they collect, but the policy in the United States is that work produced by government employees should normally be in the public domain.

And so the CIA World Factbook is packed with material that anyone can use for any purpose—commercial or otherwise. There are country maps, flags of the world, freely-usable photographs for most countries, and the country pages themselves. The Factbook used to be drily-presented on a slow-loading site, but nowadays it’s super-fast and very easy to navigate.

The country information includes social background, location, area, neighbors, territorial claims, climate, terrain, resources, land use, hazards, environmental issues, population, age, mortailty, birth rate, migration, urbanization, sex ratio, life expectancy, HIV prevalence, ethnicity, languages, education, government, administrative divisions, legislature, judiciary, pressure groups, diplomatic representation, economic overview, GPD, workforce, unemployment, income, budget, debt, inflation, money, agriculture, industry, imports, exports, energy production and consumption, gold reserves, exchange rates, telephones, radio, internet, airports, pipelines, railways, roads, waterways, shipping, ports, military, international disputes, illegal drugs and much more.

Many of the statistics are also available as country ranking charts, so if you want to see which country has the highest inflation or life expectancy, for example, it’s easy to do so.

Additional pages list the international country codes, internet top-level domains, international groups, environmental agreements, and hydrographic data codes. There’s a large glossary of abbreviations, and a cross-reference of geographic names. There are well-written pages explaining how the data is collected and presented, and how to use and interpret it. There are question-and-answer sections explaining thorny issues such as the classification of Taiwan.

All in all, it’s a great resource, and about as authoritative as anything can be. Even the subjective information is carefully analysed and well-reasoned.

The online version of the factbook is updated every couple of weeks, and you can also buy a printed edition. As a bonus, the website features an interesting gallery of past Factbook covers.

A separate CIA publication provides information about world leaders.

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