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CUIN 7303 - Professional Seminar I

Exploring Data Sources

When you are off campus, you will be asked to log in with your Cougarnet ID and password.

Let's say we want to find income data.

Finding your maps

  1. From the social explorer home page under “United States” select “Explorer”

Screen shot of the social explorer main maps page

  1. You can zoom in to the area you like using the scroll wheel on you mouse, much like you would in Google Maps
    1. You’ll notice as you zoom that the level at which the data is being shown will change to smaller areas automatically.
    2. Zip code is an option, and so is Unified School District. If you want to turn off the automatic change in level, you can select one of these other options.
    3. Up here is where you’ll want to click to change the type of information that is being displayed.

Screen shot of social explorer's data selection interface

  1. When you select “Change Data” you’ll see this drop down
    1. These are the categories of data that are available to you for the year you are looking at. We're going to select Income, 3rd option on the left.
    2. You can always select different years here. The available data categories in A will change accordingly.

Screen shot of social explorer's survey source selection interface

  1. Once you’ve selected a category, your drop down will look like this instead.
    1. This is where to look to see what data set you’re drawing from. ACS 5 year will show up first by default, but as you scroll down 3 and 1 year estimates will show up, and every 10 years so will the Census.
    2. If you’ve already got a category selected, you’ll see a check box here indicating that category is illustrating the current map.

The current options show breakdown for different categories of income, but we can scroll down a little further and get median income.

Screen shot of the social explorer map interface showing physical location of options

  1. Once you have a desired map displayed there are a number of helpful features
    1. When you hold your mouse over a given area, you’ll have this pop up display to give you the specific numbers for that tract or zip. It’s a good idea to note the Census Tract numbers for the year you’re looking at if this is what you’re using. (They can change from year to year) This will help when you go to download tables.
    2. The share button will give you a permalink back to this map that you can share.
    3. Export will let you create a copy of the map for you to save. You can scale the size of the image, file format and other image quality aspects.

Getting Tables

Now that you’re able to get maps from Social Explorer, it’s time to get Tables. These are especially important for those categories where the visual representation of one variable leaves a lot of information out (for example, with race, you know the representation of one race in an area, but the remaining portion could be composed of any number of races).

In this example, let's get household income ranges

  1. From the Social Explorer home page, select Tables near the upper left.
  2. For information 2000 and prior you’ll want to select US Decennial Census, for information in more recent years you’ll want to select American Community Survey (ACS).
  3. Select “Begin report” for the year of interest. For ACS, the latter year listed will be the one that matches that year in the maps you were downloading.
  4. Under the drop down for “Select a geographic type:” you want 140 Census tract, or 860 for Zip or 960 for Unified school district Let's select Zip.
  5. Select ZCTA3 770 (this just represents the first 3 digits for the zip code.  If you're doing Census Tract or School district you'll need to select a state: Select Texas)
  6. Select a County (if asked): Select whichever county covers the area you’re looking at.
  7. In “Select one or more geographic areas and click ‘add’:” find the census tract based on the numbers you noted from your maps earlier (if you’re looking for Census Tracts). You can select multiple tracts by holding down the CTRL key and clicking on each one. If you’re using Zip or School District you can select those instead. In our example, we select ZCTA5 77004 (ie 5 digit zip)
  8. Select the Add button. You should see the selected tracts/zips/school districts show up in the “Current Geography Selections” box.
  9. Repeat 6-8 for any additional tracts/zips/districts covered by other regions.
  10. Once all your areas are selected, click the “Proceed to table” button
  11. You can stroll through the list of tables to select all of the topics you need information on. You can select multiple topics by holding down the CTRL key and clicking each one. Then click Add to include them in your list of selections.
  12. You can also click the “Search By Keyword” Tab to do keyword searches of the topics. Then just select the ones from the results list and click Add. Click on this and search for income, then select A14001. Household income
  13. When you have all the tables you want from that year, click “Show Results”
  14. If you select the Excel Tab you’ll be able to download an excel file of the data that was displayed.
  15. Repeat this for any additional years of data that you require.

When you are off campus, you will be asked to log in with your Cougarnet ID and password.

Finding how many businesses are in a particular area:

1.Click U.S. Businesses from available databases
2.Click Advanced Search
3.Pick Keyword/SCI/NAICS as business type
4.Use the verified businesses as default
5.Type the business you want to search and click search
6.Select the best match

7.Pick Zip Codes under geography, or use city/state if you prefer
8.Type the specific zipcode(s) you want to search
9.Click update count to see record count, or click view results to see the details


10.Select the ones you need, and download the data.You can also view a map of your business if you click heat map.

*Remember you can only download 500 records at a time in ReferenceUSA. So if you have a large number of records to download, you may have to download in batches.

Before you download the data, think about the following:

  • What formats are available?
  • What information do you know about the data.

There are different types of data formats. Common ones are: Comma-separated Value (CSV),Excel,xml, json, spss, sas,etc.Consider what software you have to open the data before downloading.

Tips for troubleshooting any opening and access issues:

  1. Understand the file. Do you have a compatible program to open it? Can I convert it?
  2. Uncompress the file. If you download a compressed file (.zip or .tar .gz), use Winzip or Archive Utility to uncompress first.
  3. Google your issue. If you encounter a problem, search for it. Someone probably encountered the problem already. It's useful to search for the error message, or include some specifics, such as "can't open .tar files".

To find information about the data, you want to look for data documentation. Common types of documentation includes:

  • Codebook, which describes the context, structure and layout of a dataset. It also gives you details about the variables.
  • Data dictionary, which is used to catalog and communicate the structure and content of data.
  • Readme file, usually readme.txt file that outlines information required to use a file.

The example below shows you the data download page from Social Explorer. It gives you different file formats to download, as well as the data dictionary for you to understand the data. Remember to check "output column labels in the first row" when downloading data from Social Explorer. This way, you will see meaningful variable names. If you don't do this, you will have to search in the data dictionary to find out what the code means for your variables. 

This is the data download page for ReferenceUSA. You can select the file format you need. The default is to download the summary data, but if you need more details, choose the custom report to add variables you are interested in.

When considering whether or not to use data created by someone else in your research it is important that you are able to evaluate it and determine its usefulness to your work and its validity and trustworthiness. To do this, ask yourself these questions:

What is the purpose of the data?

  • What context was it meant to be used in? 
  • Does the data seem to have a bias towards one outcome or answer? Can you acknowledge that bias and still use the data responsibly?

Who collected the data?

  • Does the person who collected the data have the necessary skills or training to do so? 
  • Are they an expert in the field? 

When was the information collected?

  • Some topics require data collected over a long time period while others require very timely data. 

How was the information obtained?

  • What tools did the collector use and are those standard for their field?
  • Was the sample size large enough for the study?
  • What was the response rate of that sample size?
  • How were the respondents selected? Who was asked? Who wasn’t? Why or why not?

Does the data make sense in context of previous studies?

  • Data that contradicts other data in the field should be looked at skeptically. What did they do differently to cause such a contradiction?