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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Flexibility and detective work are essential.
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