Skip to Main Content
University of York Library
Library Subject Guides

Data: a Practical Guide

Searching for data

Final prototype for the Data practical guide.

Searching for data

If you're searching for numbers, what's the best way to go about it? On this page we'll take a look at some data searching principles.

Data and stats - what are they and what can I do with them?

We often use these two words interchangeably, and the word data is often used in a broad sense to refer to a collection of facts, numbers, and statistics collected together. In academic research the two are different and the difference is important in order to understand exactly what you are looking at and, crucially, what you can do with it.


  • Raw numbers collected as part of a study and stored.

  • Usually found in the form of a digital dataset -  a collection of related sets of information/data kept as machine-readable files, that can be filtered and searched according to your own criteria, and can be analyzed using software such as Excel and SPSS.

When is data useful?

Some organisations and researchers collect and store enormous quantities of data that can be used by people as a basis for reasoning, discussion or calculation. People can interrogate and analyse this data in order to explain things.

Data series are often kept over long periods of time and updated regularly with the most recent figures. This means they can be repeatedly interrogated, each time potentially showing new developments. You can start to compare a variable over time and be very up-to-date in what you find.

Data is particularly useful when you want to examine what is happening and come to your own conclusions, i.e. when you are asking questions like 'Why?' Or 'How?'


Statistics are the result of some human analysis of the raw collected data. Data has been interrogated and processed in some way and decisions have been made on how to present that data to show a particular view of what is going on. 

You will usually see statistics in tables, charts, or graphs, and also as numbers and percentages reported in articles. 

Once a statistic is published it is static and only ever refers to that point in time.

When are stats useful?

  • When you need a quick figure to evidence a point, and you think that figure may already have been pulled out for you by someone else publishing on the topic or by an organisation who pulls together summary statistics (e.g. GDP for a country in a particular year, % of people who enrolled in higher education in a particular country; number of crimes reported in a particular place and time) and you don't want to interrogate the data for yourself in your own way.

  • When you want to answer questions like 'how many?' or 'how much?'

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics"

Pinocchio marionettes for sale

Statistics can seem persuasive, but beware. They can often be used to make a weak argument seem stronger. Think critically about statistics that are presented to you, and decide whether you think they are strong enough as evidence to prove an argument. Think about what that stat really tells you and what it leaves out.

For more on how to read statistics with a critical eye, see the book:
"Damned lies and statistics: untangling numbers from the media, politicians, and activists", by Joel Best.

Gathering data

We take a look at what data is and where we might get it, from surveys to pre-existing data sources.

Questions to frame your search for data

You will probably be looking for data about certain people, activities or commodities.

If you're looking for data on people, you need to think about what 'social unit' you're interested in. You may be interested in individuals, couples, households or families. You may be after particular groups, like companies or political organisations. You may be interested in a nation. Particular groupings may also be important to your search — for example, race, nationality or gender. 

If may be that you're interested in 'things' rather than people: for example, commodities like cars. Or you may be interested in a particular activity, like voting.

Defining exactly what is in scope and what is out of scope before you start searching will save you time later.

  • Are you interested in a particular point in time? 
  • Do you want to look at changes in data over time? 
  • Do you need historical information? 
  • Or do you want the most current information?

Most current statistics may actually be a year or more old as there are time lags whilst the information is collected, processed, and released.

Some sources of data offer huge banks of data that are gathered over years and you can interrogate these to do over-time comparisons. 

Some sources just offer quick snapshots of a particular point in time.

  • Are you interested in a particular nation, state, county or city?

Geography is usually a factor. There is usually a place that is the focus of your enquiry.


In order to find the right source to search for your data you need to consider the following:

  • Who is likely to collect the data on this? What kind of organisation?
  • Who is likely to process the data and publish this either as data or stats?

Who publishes statistical information?

  • Government departments - they collect data to aid them with policy decisions. This can be ministerial and non-ministerial departments.

  • Not-for-profit organisations - there are organisations who collect and publish styatistics to support their own agendas or aims. E.g. the World Health Organisation or the World Monetary Fund.

  • Commercial firms - for example marketing companies.

  • Academics - researchers and institutions gather and publish data as part of research projects. You can often find journal articles about topics that contain statistics as evidence. But you may be able to get access to whole datasets.

You may need to be a detective and do some Internet searching to determine who you think the main people are with a vested interest in your topic area. Work out if they publish data on their own websites. 

If you are interested in particular countries it is a good idea to work out the government structure in order to work out who will likely publish stats on particular themes.

I can't find this stat! What can I do?

Flexibility and detective work are essential. 

  • What you are looking for may never have been collected or may not be published for people to see. This is true of some countries where the data is just not made available. It may be that if it is very current information it is not available yet, or if it is older it may no longer be available to view. Can you refine your topic of investigation, changing either the geographical area, the timeframe or the other variables in some way?
  • Have you used the specialist tools and drawn a blank? Can you identify other organisations who may collect that data and explore their websites? Can you explore journal articles and other secondary sources instead?
  • Are you using the tool you're using to search effectively? Information databases and web search engines have help sections and tutorials with search tips.

Forthcoming training sessions

Forthcoming sessions on :

Show details & booking for these sessions

There's more training events at: