I Need Data. Where Do I Start?

We live in a world of data and the amount, quality, and ease of access to that data increases every day. However, an entire world of data can be very overwhelming to navigate and understand if you are exploring it for the first time. Never fear! As a student, there are a few approaches you can take to identify sources that provide the data you need.

Schedule a consult with your local librarian about your data research topic.

The library staff at your university or local library should be one of the first places you reach out to when you need data research support. The mission of all libraries is to help you access quality information in the most efficient way possible. Amanda Izenstark, the Reference and Instructional Design Librarian at the University of Rhode Island, says this mission is often overlooked because "students view the library as a quiet and stodgy place, and they don't realize it's a place for studying and for finding information and research support!"

A librarian consult can provide you with guidance and advice on where to find the data you need. Amanda explains that it's helpful if the student has the following information ready for their consult:

It helps if the student can answer these two questions: What class is the assignment for? And what exactly is the assignment? Together, this helps me (the librarian) identify the most appropriate resource for the student's level and understand what the professor is asking the student to do.

Learn what databases you can explore on your own.

If you are in topic exploration mode and need guidance on what's available, then your library can also help you access subject or aggregate databases for your perusal. Amanda explains that "knowing that the library has subject-specific databases would save students a lot of time in their research." Interested in data on Latin America? Need more data on consumer behavior in Alabama? There are many data resources that you likely already have access to through your library.

Should I use existing data?

The first question to ask when preparing to hunt down statistics to support your research topic, is to consider what data sources already exist in your area of interest. Ask yourself, what organization would have an interest in studying or answering my research topic? For instance, if you plan to research homelessness in the United States and need data on the topic, brainstorm what organizations would be interested in collecting that kind of data. Seeing as homelessness is a national concern, a US federal agency like the Department of Housing and Urban Development may have standardized, official statistics. In the same way, if you were interested in wheat production in Canada, you would consider international organizations that might collect this data, like the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, or Statistics Canada, the national statistical agency of Canada.

Check out our video to learn more about how you can benefit from using existing data!

Source: O'Leary Ph.D., Z. (Academic). (2017). Should I be working with existing data? [Video]. Sage Research Methods Video https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781526400154