The SBA can Size Up Your Market

What size do you want to be?

The Small Business Administration has a new and very useful online widget—SizeUp ( —which can be used in two ways.   

First it provides a free analysis of your business.  Comparing your business to competitors is an important step in keeping your business plan up to date. Using this tool you can make informed decisions based on reliable data without paying for a consultant or service. 

Second, you can use the analysis tool to research business opportunities. You simply need to create an imaginary business that can be compared to others. 

SizeUp provides data analysis in three key ways:

  • Benchmarking an existing business to see how it sizes up by comparing performance to all other competitors in the same industry;
  • Mapping competition to see where competitors, customers, and suppliers are located; and
  • Finding the best places to advertise and do more marketing by choosing from pre-set reports to discover areas with the highest industry revenue and the most under-served markets.

Custom demographic reports can also be created.

To learn more about each of these options, click on the “learn more” buttons on the right side of the SizeUp  page. A pop up offers a video or a written script providing a walk-through of the process and options.

SizeUp empowers small businesses to make smarter choices by providing many of the same types of business analysis large corporations use— for free. Big businesses are more able to afford to employ expert consultants or to hire internal staff experts to interpret massive data and help make informed decisions. Small businesses typically cannot afford to do this, so they are at a competitive disadvantage.  SizeUp helps level the competitive playing field by providing this data to small businesses at no cost. Continue reading

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Finding the Right Address: Part 3—History of Older Buildings

In the previous two posts I covered information that can be unearthed on buildings by using public records, peridical indices, and commerical databases.  Information on historical buildings can be invaluable to developers or anyone doing business in an historic building and neighborhood.  In this post I cover some really interesting places that such information can be found.  

History libraries and other special collections often offer really unique sources for researching a building or neighborhood.  These collections usually include atlases, building permits, directories, indexes, and photographs.     

Architectural guidebooks are a good place to start when you have questions about historical buildings.  Look for these in the architectural and design collections of university libraries; many collections will be location-oriented—so you will need to search the catalog (or query the reference desk) of a library near the locale you are researching.     

The Yale University Library offers titles about surrounding areas. For example:  

  • New Haven architecture 1950-1996. The Alliance for Architecture. New Haven:  The Alliance for Architecture, 1997
  • Buildings and landmarks of old Boston: a guide to the Colonial, Provincial, Federal, and Greek revival periods, 1630-1850. Howard S. Andros.Hanover: University Press of New England, c2001.

The Berkeley library maintains titles such as:

  • An architectural guidebook to San Francisco and the Bay area. Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny; contributing authors and … 1st ed.Layton,UT: Gibbs Smith, c2007.
  • The guide to architecture in San Francisco and northern California. David Gebhard Rev.ed. Salt Lake City: G.M. Smith, 1985. 

There are guides published for most major cities:

  • Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture.  Judith Paine McBrien (Oct 17, 2004)
  • AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C.   G. Martin Moeller (May 11, 2012)
  • Guide to Contemporary New York City Architecture.   John Hill  (Dec 5, 2011)
  • Guide to architecture in Los Angeles & Source California.  Gebhard, David.
  • Guide to Denver architecture with regional highlights  2001.
  • Seattle architecture: a walking guide to downtown. Elenga, Maureen R.

City directories are great for finding the historical records of a building.  They are arranged by address, and so can help you identify the past residents of a structure.  Historical assessor information will allow tracing of ownership. Many city directories were produced annually and offer cross listings searchable either by address or name.  Most state and public libraries, as well as local historical societies, collect city directories for their region.  (Often these are on microfiche.)  EDR (covered in the last post ) provides a database compiling these for the entire U.S.

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Finding the Right Address: Part 2—Commercial Databases

Commercial Sites with Some Free Searching

There are numerous real estate databases that provide various and extensive types of information, many intended for real estate professionals.  Others cater to builders, developers, and those engaged in due diligence.  For other types of businesses these sites can be mined for a wealth of market information.  Most allow for a limited free search.  (I have not attempted to compare the costs of these services.  There are many real estate-type sources that I did not examine, and I have not listed those that are proven to have unreliable data.)  On all of the services I searched only using the free options.

Mostly they are of two categories: real estate information and construction data.

When I was in the construction business, most sales people felt that commercial lead databases were not worth the high cost; a firm focusing on specific markets and clients often knows about projects before they are added to these databases. These services may be the most useful to firms needing information on needs for their specific specialty or services—for example, bricks or bricklaying—or for firms searching outside their usual geographic region.  I cover just one—Reed Construction Data

For more information about online construction information go to Kangiser, Angela “The Construction Industry Online.” Searcher; Jun2010, Vol. 18 Issue 5, p12-47, 10p.  and Part 2, Mar2011, Vol. 19 Issue 2, p40-45, 6p.

Propertyshark seems to be the commercial database service that provides the easiest search and the best results of the services offering free portions of their databases.  (It also offers extended subscription services and data.)  The help pages offer clear and direct assistance. Search on owner, address, or parcel ID to find value, owner, sales price and date, sales history, property tax, often photos, and quite comprehensive comparables (this includes neighborhood sales history, list of comparable properties, and permits).  A subscription to comparables offers more extensive information.  Foreclosure information is available for a very few U.S. counties.

I was able to use this web site to find sales details for a property listed in a county with no online records of any kind.  (Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania)

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Finding the Right Address: Part 1—Public Records and Periodical Indices

Looking for Information on a Specific Building

There are many reasons for wanting to learn more about specific buildings and neighborhoods.  Firms in the architectural/engineering and construction industries have obvious needs, but other businesses often look for information about places to establish a new outlet or office.  Or, if you are a product supplier, you need to locate buildings that utilize your product.  (e.g. Will this project utilize bricks, glass blocks, etc.  Does this building have equipment I can service?)  Where are all the hotels, stadiums and arenas in New York City, or skyscrapers in Germany?  What new buildings are under construction in San Diego?  Is there an environmental hazard nearby?

"Of course the first thing to do was to make a grand survey of the country..." Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass.

The questions that can be asked about buildings are endless: who designed, constructed, owns, and manages it?  What type of building is it? Who lives in or does business there?  When was it built, and how much did it cost?  Style and functions are also important.  Creative marketers can use the tools listed in these posts to find exactly what they need, but it may take some time to locate the best source for your specific purpose.

Most of the resources available that provide information on buildings can be divided into three categories: those providing resources for the architectural and construction industries; those with searchable descriptive data for marketing, business and professional real estate purposes; and those with historical drawings, maps, and data.  I am not going to cover residential sites, but many of the sources do include homes and neighborhoods. 

Because there are so many really useful and interesting resources, I have split them into three posts. This one, the first, covers public records and periodical indices.  The second will survey many of the free and subscription databases available.  Historical records are the focus of the third post.   Continue reading

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Is Anyone Out There? Let the SBA Help You Find Out!

SBA Office of Advocacy

Sometimes it’s lonely being a small business person. It can seem a daunting task to discover how many business entities exist in your market, how large they are, what they worry about, or how long they have been in business.  An office of the SBA can help you discover the answers to these and many other questions.   The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy  is an independent voice for small business within the federal government.

Part of advocacy’s mission is to conduct, sponsor, and promote economic research that provides an environment for small business health and growth.  They publish a monthly Small Business Advocate and an annual Small Business Economy, which this year is available in online tables.

“If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said, in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go around a great deal faster that it does.”

There is a wealth of information about small businesses available on their web site.  With a little investigation, you can obtain intelligence about the number of firms in your market, how many competitors you have, and their major concerns.

“As the federal office responsible for examining the contributions and challenges of small businesses in the U.S. economy, we are constantly looking for answers to small business questions—those that intrigue researchers, challenge business organizations, enlighten policymakers, and vex small business owners. Reference materials published annually include small business profiles for each of the 50 states and U.S. territories, quarterly small business indicators, and  The Small Business Economy report.”

Another function is a responsibility to examine the impact of new federal regulations on small businesses.

In January 2011, President Obama signed Executive Order 13563, which among other provi­sions, directed departments and agencies throughout government to review existing significant regula­tions and consider how best to pro­mote retrospective analysis of rules.  Advocacy is currently working with OMB and regulatory agencies to identify regulations where regulato­ry cost savings can be achieved.

Small Business Profiles for the States and Territories supply data on small businesses in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia,  providing great detail about small businesses at the state level.  Topics covered are:

  • the number of firms
  • demographics of business ownership
  • small business income
  • banking
  • business turnover
  • industry composition, and
  • employment gains and losses by size of business.

To go directly to federal government information on firm size go to Firm Size Data ( which describes the various series of data from the Economic Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Shorter Term Business Data Series and Publications

"Well, when I was lost, I suppose it's good advice to stay where you are until someone finds you. But who'd ever think to look for me here? "

Monthly and Quarterly Series

U.S. Census data is varied and seemingly limitless.  If, like Alice, you feel lost, it may be time to review your research plan and the specific needs of your marketing plan. In a previous post I covered long-term Census series.  Here I cover the most important Census and other Department of Commerce monthly and quarterly datasets.  Of course there are many more series and publications available.  The previous posts in this statistics-finding series provide lots of  avenues for exploration; I hope that you have found them useful.    And, I as can’t repeat often enough, exploring the Census Bureau web site or American Factfinder will provide insight on other topics. 

Another method for delving into statistics is to browse the U.S. Statistical Abstract, perhaps the best known statistical source.  Published since 1878, this is the authoritative and comprehensive summary of statistics on the social, political, and economic organization of the United States.  It is invaluable as a guide to sources of more information both in print and on the web—and this tool includes data from private organizations.  It also contains bibliographies of state abstracts and sources, foreign abstracts and sources, historical statistics and maps.  Source notes for each table enables the user to find more statistics on her topic.

Economic Indicators  

Quoted in numerous news shows and the business press, the well-known government Economic Indicators are one of the most useful Department of Commerce shorter-term economic series.  A list of the latest available reports is posted on the home page The Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) releases 13 monthly and quarterly Principal Federal Economic Indicators.  You can subscribe to an update alert service on this page as well.  

Many web sites providing information on interpreting the data can be found with any search engine.  An excellent summary explaining the indicators can be found at  A Beginner’s Guide to Economic Indicators.  Investopedia also offers an extensive tutorial.  The main indicators are: 

  • U.S. International Trade in Goods and Services
  • Manufacturers’ Shipments, Inventories and Orders
  • Advance Monthly Sales for Retail and Food Services
  • Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services
  • Manufacturing and Trade Inventories and Sales
  • Monthly Wholesale Trade: Sales and Inventories
  • Quarterly Financial Report
  • Quarterly Services Report
  • New Residential Construction
  • New Home Sales
  • Construction Spending
  • Quarterly Financial Report for Retail Trade 
  • Quarterly Report on Housing Vacancies and Home Ownership (new series)

Bureau of Economic Analysis

The BEA is a separate Department of Commerce agency with a goal to “provide the most timely, relevant and accurate economic data … to help promote a better understanding of the U.S. economy.  These reliable and consistent measures of economic activity are essential to the informed decisionmaking of policymakers, business leaders and every American household.”   BEA provides a plethora of analysis data, including GDP  (national, state and SMSA) , consumer spending, corporate profits, balance of payments, articles, forecasts, and presentations.  Because the information from BEA is so extensive, you would be wise to keep track of your research paths so that you can plan ahead for future data.

Survey of Current Business

 If you have been doing market research for a long time, you have used BEA’s monthly Survey of Current Business.  Other than the U.S. Statistical Abstract, most (pre-web) researchers think of it when they look for useful statistics.  While it is now available free online, users may still subscribe to a print copy.  The monthly issues include charts, tables, articles, briefings, and updated information on BEA research.  As the bureau name suggests, the articles are focused on analysis of data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Topics range from regional personal income to GDP growth in the nation’s 366 metropolitan areas.  The tables will enable you to track price indices and goods produced by major industrial sectors.  

An important note here: price indices are not the same as prices.  Do some research into prices indices before using them.  For example, don’t compare cost of living indices across metropolitan areas without considering where each index started.  The indices show amount of change, not raw data! 

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Long-term Economic Census Series

Historical and Long-term Data

Now that we have covered most of the datafinders in the last post (Search Tools and Datafinders), it’s time to discuss the long-term datasets collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census.  It is these series, including the 10-year demographic survey (to be discussed in a later post), that most people think of when you mention the Census.  So that we don’t have to stretch out as tall as Alice to take it all in at once, in this post I will review only the five-year economic census and several related annual datasets,  all of which cover business and industry.

In the next post, I will cover shorter term—monthly and quarterly—data series. Later posts will cover the U.S. produced foreign trade datafinders and the demographic information available from the population census.

The first step of your search plan is to decide if you are looking for historical data so you can discover trends, or that you need the most current numbers.  I consider annual series long-term data, since the data is often published longer than a year after the survey is completed. The more timely series—monthly or quarterly—can be useful for tracking your target market segment growth or downsizing, orders, number of employees, etc.   Again, I will cover these series in the next post. 

"Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice…”Now I am opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!”


The second step is to determine what service or industrial segment you want to track. The government switched from the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) some years ago, but some indices still include it.  The newer North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), more specific and attuned to modern businesses, is now used by all  U.S. agencies collecting and categorizing statistical data.  ( Also used by Mexico and Canada, the NAICS is found at )  The first NAICS was published in 2002, with a 2007 update; there is an upgrade based on public comments and OMB recommendations coming in 2012.

Once you decide on the code you want, make sure that you know which version was used to compile the data that you find.  There are tables and concordances on the NAICS web page that can help you understand what is included in each revision.

U.S.  Economic Census

The Economic Census, conducted and published every five years—those ending in 2 and 7—provides data that can be filtered by NAICS code.  The Census Overview describes Census Bureau programs that provide statistics about  U.S. businesses and governments.  Each description includes links to data products, related programs and additional information.  ( Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page—there is a lot of information here!)  

The major economy-wide data series available are:

  • Economic Census
  • Survey of Business Owners (including minority and women-owned businesses)
  • Statistics of U.S. Businesses
  • County Business Patterns
  • Non-employer Statistics
  • Annual Capital Expenditures Survey
  • National Employer Survey
  • Information and Communication Technology Survey
  • Business Register
  • Company Organization Survey

In addition the series listed below are available for multiple sectors, but not all.

  • Survey of Pollution Abatement Costs and Expenditures
  • Survey of Industrial Research and Development
  • Research and Development Database
  • Quarterly Financial Report, Manufacturing, Mining, Trade, and Selected Service Industries
  • Business Expenditures Supplement to the Annual Surveys of Wholesale Trade, Retail Trade, Accommodations and Food Services (formerly the Assets and Expenditure Survey)
  • Business and Professional Classification Survey

The specific sectors covered by programs in Census Bureau Economy Overview are:

  • Multi-Sector
  • Construction  (Buildings, alterations and public works)
  • Governments   (Local, state and Federal agencies)
  • Foreign Trade   (Exports, imports and participants)
  • Manufacturing   (Companies, operations and shipments, products)
  • Mining   (Minerals, gases and initial processing)
  • Retail  (Merchandise for personal or home use)
  • Services  (Personal, business and transport services)
  • Wholesale  (Merchandise for business use)

Each one of these sectors have multiple series. For example, construction includes the Census of Construction Industries from the main five-year economic census, Building Permits Survey, Value of Construction Put in Place, Survey of Construction, and Survey of New Manufactured (Mobile) Homes.

If you do plan to use the five-year business census it may be worth your time to go to the Bureau page describing training seminars that were conducted in 2010 for the 2007 Economic Census.  This page includes links to presentations, conference materials, tips for use of American Factfinder, and new features of the data, comparability issues, and qualifications of the data.

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Sifting U.S. Government Statistics for Business Information: Part 1

'Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?' said the March Hare. 'Exactly so,' said Alice.


Search Tools and Datafinders

Before the proliferation of the Internet finding meaningful government statistical data for market research was daunting.  The U.S. government is the largest data collector in the world!  I would go to the library and copy many, many pages, or to the government bookstore and buy volume after volume.          

Not just the Census Bureau, but many other government agencies, really do collect information that can be vital to your marketing plan, and now, thanks to Al Gore, it is so much easier to track down.    

Most data is available on CD ROM, but many fewer printed reports are being sent to Depository Libraries.*                            

There is so much data that, like many other government resources, it is quite overwhelming.  It can’t be mentioned often enough—plan before you start and keep track of your strategy and key words, or you will get lost in the weeds.  ( Remember the cat telling Alice—if you don’t know where you are going…any road will get you there. ) Don’t get discouraged, once you find important and helpful data you will be able to update your business plan regularly.                 

One key point to remember–there is a difference between establishments and businesses (or firms).  In other words, a large manufacturing concern or a service business may have one main location, and several, or many, subsidiary locations.  Make sure that you are comparing similar types, as there are many different Census tables with varying coverage.                        

* Depository libraries were established to provide a free and easily accessible source for government documents. Some university libraries require an ID to use the collection, but many provide public access for U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) publications.  Also, be aware that many government reports are published first by their originating agency, and then reprinted by GPO. So if you cannot find a document you need, it may be available under another publication number.                           

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Sifting U.S. Government Statistics for Business Information: Part 2

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare. ‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

Search Tools and Datafinders: Which to Use

 An exploration of the various U.S. statistics websites yields a bewildering list of search engines and help sites. DataFerrett  is specific to a type of data, and the Census current data Database Search covers the economic indicators, but the rest are fairly inclusive.  I suggest that you try each one using the same very limited topic to find the one that suits your search style and expected results.  Because of the amount of Census and other data, none of these tools will be a quick search; just remember that quick and dirty searches usually lead to unsatisfactory results. American FactFinder, the first datafinder described below, does have a quick search feature, so if you are in a hurry it would be a good starting place. Perhaps the simplest starting point is the Census website  How to Find the Latest Business Data, where a chart of available information shows what years and geographic breakdowns are available.                

This post covers American FactFinder, Census Bureau search engines  (including the current data Database Search), FedStats, and Data Ferrett.                    

American FactFinder                     

The most comprehensive search engine for U.S. government statistics is American FactFinder.  It will help you find Census data from the Decennial Census, American Community Survey, Puerto Rico Community Survey, Population Estimates Program, Economic Census, and Annual Economic Surveys.  (See the list below for other agency datasets.) American FactFinder provides data from the lowest level of geography (blocks), up to the biggest variety of geographic entities—everything from zip code tabulation areas, to state legislative districts to Census tracts.  For a complete and understandable listing of the sources, abbreviations and datasets go to the American FactFinder Guide provided for students by the library at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  There you will find definitions for such terms as block group, Census tracts, and thematic map. There are clear directions for selecting search terms, searching, and downloading.  Many other university libraries have search guides and tutorials online for specific needs: finding local data, interfacing with GIS, and making maps for example.                     

Find other guides by searching in Google for American Factfinder.  Some of the more useful guides are:                    

 Before you start it is a good idea to check what version of your internet browser works most efficiently.  Older versions and unusual browsers are likely to make your search more difficult.   Also, just like, FactFinder has a lot of data: obtaining the statistics you want often requires many steps and lots of clicking.                    

FactFinder includes datasets from the following U.S. government agencies:                    


  • Commerce—Bureau of Census   
  • Labor—Bureau of Labor Statistics   
  • Agriculture—Economic Research Service and National Agriculture Statistics Service   
  • Education—National Center for Education Statistics   
  • Energy—Energy Information Administration   
  • Justice—Bureau of Justice Statistics   
  • Health and Human Services— National Center for Health Statistics   
  • Treasury, IRS—Statistics of Income Division   
  • Transportation—Bureau of Transportation Statistics   


(Note that numerous government agencies are not on this list—Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, EPA, Education, State, etc.)                    

How to Use American FactFinder   

 The Census Bureau introduced an improved Factfinder recently.  According to the U.S. Census blog “the new American Factfinder was designed to provide easy access to Census Bureau data for non-expert users without sacrificing detail for expert users.  It will allow all users easier and more efficient access to data by simplifying search and navigation, using topic, geography or industry based search and navigation terms.  Users no longer need to know the content of various Census Bureau surveys in order to quickly find the appropriate information.” ( Random Samplings                    

The best way to jump into using this tool is to take the virtual tour.  The tour covers the use of Quick Start, not the advanced search features.  Using Quick Start will help you get familiar with the search engine and the possible results.  As you are learning, keep in mind that there are two main types of statistical results that you will retrieve: tables and maps.  Output can be manipulated, customized, and saved.                    

Learn more about FactFinder features by using the extensive help pages.  These cover such topics as search strategy, explanation of error messages, table modification, downloading, and viewing tables as maps.                      

Searching for Data    

 There are two primary ways to search for data in American FactFinder: the quick start method and the searching-by-categories method. Help pages and tutorials cover a variety of topics.                    

Topic filters available are:                       

  • People – Characteristics of people such as age, and sex    
  • Survey – Characteristics of data surveys such as program, year, and survey name    
  • Data – Characteristics of the data such as data set, and product types    
  • Housing – Characteristics of housing such as count and owner costs    
  • Business and Industry – Measurements of businesses and industries such as expenses, capital expenditures and assets    
  • Business and Industry – Industry code filters—by name of industry, or number     


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Finding Statistics for Market Research

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

For a very long time I had a permanent frowny face when I thought of collecting statistics for market research. Most business and marketing students are taught to collect and analyze raw data, but I have found that there are many sources available for locating the information you need to make good business planning decisions.  

Market research often centers on collection and analysis of information about consumers and competitors. Systematic collection and analysis of data detailing attributes of your target market is the key to all business planning. In a series of posts I will describe many sources that collect useful, often vital, economic information. Some have excellent tools for compiling the data. This means that you can focus on analysis and application of the information to your business plan.  

Even so, there are some basic steps to finding and using statistics in business planning.  

  1. Problem definition: What is the focus of your research? What do you need to know to build a solid marketing plan? Example: How many new housing units, and of what type, have been built in your county in the last year?
  2. Data collection method and needs: How will you collect the data that you will need to solve the problem?
  3. Determine likely sources:Where will you look for this information? Statistical sources range from Major League Baseball to UNICEF. Just searching on Google and looking at likely sources is not efficient and very discouraging. There are literally thousands of sources: for this series of posts I will report on U.S. government-collected datasets.
  4. Collection and analysis of the data: Collect your statistics from a reliable source and compile it into a chart, map or structured document. Once the data is compiled the hardest part of this process may be to determine what the data reveals. Does it show a growth spurt in population, in businesses in a downtown area, in the number of widgets sold? And if so, what does that mean to your plan?

The analysis of the data is often the most difficult because the results may not reflect what you or your client expected. For example, I once worked for a very large engineering firm that relied for one large segment of their business on the pulp and paper industry. After doing research I found that, at least at that time, it was a cyclical business. Executives refused to believe that and continued to throw significant resources at obtaining more contracts to design and build paper plants. The data was correct and in a few years that segment collapsed—that firm is now totally gone.  

In subsequent posts I will cover data search tools like American FactFinder, the U.S. Economic Census, demographic sources such as the U.S. population census, international sources, and industry profiles.  The next post will contain information about U.S. government statistical search engines and tools.

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