Data journalism.

Germany has thousands of gas stations that tend to be owned by only a handful of chains affiliated with the world’s major oil companies. For years, people accused German gas stations of raising fuel prices right before weekends and holidays and especially holiday weekends, in concert, yet no one could prove collusion. So the government created the Market Transparency Office for Fuel. In 2013, the Markttransparenzstelle began requiring German gas stations to communicate their fuel price changes in real time, and then it broadcast the data to companies whose phone apps let consumers quickly and easily compare gas prices at the closest gas stations.

Süddeutsche Zeitung has now taken four weeks of gas price data from one of the larger phone apps and combed through the information looking for patterns in what they’re calling a “data journalism” investigation. They’ll be publishing their findings in a series of articles.

Update on 16 Apr 2014: Some immediately obvious outliers turned out to be caused by gas stations that were sending in prices without decimal points, or e.g. one was submitting the price “9999.” S.Z. said the system still doesn’t have a way to check whether the numbers submitted by gas stations are truthful. Currently consumers are to send complaints about incorrect price data to the phone app companies.

S.Z. said they too can’t prove collusion. But some gas station chains are more expensive (the chain with the highest fuel prices said it’s because their fuel is such high quality). Some chains are big enough that their price changes move the market, with smaller chains changing their prices after a bigger chain does so.

The lowest fuel prices tended to be in areas with dense populations.

One gas station chain tends to change its fuel prices >13 times a day, another only 9 times a day. Both are very likely to change fuel prices between 7 and 8 p.m., while several other chains are very likely to change prices between 9 p.m. and midnight. Apparently until this report was published the cheapest time to refuel was between 5 and 7 p.m., with fuel prices rising steeply after 8 p.m.

Update on 17 Apr 2014: The chain with the most gas stations in Germany has the highest fuel prices in Germany, in the data set the Süddeutsche Zeitung examined. The chain with the second-highest number of gas stations has the second-highest fuel prices. S.Z. said the ratio holds true for four other large “A brand” chains.

“B brand,” cheaper and smaller, gas station chains tend to use a strategy of selling fuel at prices only perhaps two eurocents below the prices of the closest “A brand” gas stations but the new pricing data shows that their prices average four to five eurocents below the A brands’ when looking at Germany as a whole. The C.E.O. of one of the fuel price phone apps said, “The strategy of the B brands is actually: one or two cents cheaper is okay, that won’t start a price war.”

Germany also has many gas stations not affiliated with the large oil-company chains, but the current database groups independent gas stations in the same category as ones that belong to a large non-oil company such as a chain of car washes or supermarkets. The larger category of independent gas stations plus gas stations belonging to non-oil-company chains had higher average fuel prices than the B brand gas stations, yet S.Z. said “a look at the data” showed that in fact car wash and supermarket chains sell the cheapest fuel, because they’re hoping customers who arrive to buy gas will stay to wash cars or buy groceries.

Austria is trying to regulate gas stations’ pricing to benefit consumers more by mandating that gas stations there can only change fuel prices once per day, at noon. It’s not known whether the advantages of this model will outweigh the disadvantages: German and other officials are watching to see how the experiment works out.

(DOT en jure nah LIZ moose.)

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