The US Census Bureau, best known for keeping track of Americans, is looking overseas. That internationalism, its staff says, produces good will and good business. A chart in front of Barbara N. Diskin's office tells part of the story. Ms. Diskin heads the staff responsible for helping countries improve their data collection; the chart lists current projects in Saudi Arabia, Chad, Nigeria, Honduras, and the Philippines.
These activities range from assisting countries assemble health or consumer data to setting up statistical centers. A major project is helping India prepare for its 1991 population census.
The other part of the story involves the use of foreign data in the United States. Information garnered from more than 100 countries by the Census Bureau's Center for International Research can be of value to American businesses interested in tapping foreign markets.
``You start looking at foreign data,'' says Barbara Boyle Torrey, director of the center, and ``suddenly you have an insight you never had before.''
Private businesses account for about 20 percent of more than 100 requests for information coming to Ms. Torrey's staff each month. Private individuals account for another 9 percent. Research organizations, universities, and agencies of the federal government also use the Census Bureau's international data.
A sampling of business requests include:
Avon Products, which sells its cosmetics door-to-door, asked for population and income measures for Brazil and Mexico.
Liz Claiborne Inc., a designer and manufacturer of ready-to-wear garments, wanted unemployment figures for Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and Taiwan - countries that offer low cost work forces for textile manufacturers.
Walt Disney sought demographic profiles for Europe, where it is now building a new amusement park.
The two efforts - helping countries collect data and using that data in the US later - complement each other, says Robert O. Bartram, the assistant director with overall responsibility for the Census Bureau's international activities. Among other things, countries learn to collect data to US standards.
``It's like one hand washing the other,'' Mr. Bartram says.
The Census Bureau began to look overseas about 40 years ago, mostly in Latin America. Foreign activity began growing dramatically within the last decade and now includes countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Bartram, who is credited for this surge of activity, says that the Census Bureau has trained some 5,500 foreigners in the US and about the same number overseas. Most of the work is in third-world countries where modern recordkeeping has not yet been fully developed.
He admits that his staff is not adequate. He says that it is also limited by reimbursement requirements.
The World Bank, the US Agency for International Development, and recipient countries must pay the Census Bureau for its overseas assistance. Likewise, if a business request to Torrey's office requires her staff to engage in lengthy research or analysis, the company must pay the bill.
Torrey has stopped giving presentations to business groups because, she says, they get so hostile when she can't fulfill their requests.
Torrey is less concerned about big companies, which can afford to pay for data collection of their own.
``My question,'' she says, ``is what do we do with the businessman in Des Moines?''
She is referring to the need to help small businesses that do not have research money but do have exporting potential.
``We are sitting on information that could make a dent in [trade] competitiveness,'' Bartram says.
The Commerce Department, which is responsible for the Census Bureau, is considering a legislative proposal to permit data analysis on a nonreimbursable basis. A similar measure is included in the trade bill offered by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The problem, however, goes beyond this to the recognition of the need for such data, Torrey says.
In 1986, her staff used extra funds to prepare an analysis of the consumer market in China. The Commerce Department published only a piece of the report in a larger study of China that sold for $300 a copy - too high a price for many entrepreneurs.
When Torrey happened to show the uncopyrighted report to an official with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in New York, the response was different. Two weeks later the official called back and asked if he could publish the entire document in Japanese.
The JETRO version sold for $20 a copy. More than 700 Japanese organizations received free copies.
Torrey has had only one paying customer from the private sector in her 1 years on the job. Applied Management Systems Inc., a Los Angeles company that provides businesses with international economic statistics, asked for an update of the China report.
The long-term advantages of census programs, says Diskin in a view echoed by others, are in helping countries that are most often under difficult conditions.
``We erase the Ugly American image,'' Diskin says, ``because there is no work that we would disdain from doing.''