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Social Science Data: Searching for Data

Starting Your Search

To search for data effectively, define what it is you need to find - not just the topic of your search, but what kind of information you need for your research. This page guides you to some of the questions you should ask yourself as you get started with your data search.

Key questions to ask

What:  What kind of topic or phenomenon are you studying?

  • Are you searching for people, organizations, commodities, and/or things?

Where:  What geographical area are you studying?  

  • Are you searching for information on a broad scale (e.g. country or state) or a more granular one (e.g. voting districts or neighborhoods)?

When:  What time frame(s) are you interested in? 

  • Bear in mind that there is often a lag before this type of information becomes available; subsequently the most current statistics can be several years old.
  • Remember...more data are collected each year!  Datasets gathered this year may not have been collected 10, 20, or 50 years ago.  If you're looking for time series, investigate the datasets available in earlier years before proceeding.

Who:  Who would be likely to collect data and generate statistics on your topic?  Some candidates might be:

  • Government agencies
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
  • Academic research projects
  • Private sector

How:  How were the data collected/organized?

  • Time series
  • Longitudinal (panel)
  • Survey
  • Cross-sectional survey
  • Administrative
As with most scholarly research, your topic may need to be defined flexibly enough to fit the information available to study it.

The Reference Guide to Data Sources