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Strategies for finding data

When searching for data it is important follow specific steps to ensure that you are getting accurate and relevant data for your project. Use the information below to begin searching for your data. 

Before searching for data, clearly define the kind of data you will need. Ask yourself the questions below to help identify potential data sources.

  • What are you measuring?

What is the unit of analysis relevant to your topic?  What are you studying?

  • When did your research topic take place?

Specify a date or time frame in which you are interested. Remember that data may not be immediately available for events that have recently occurred. Besides, data existed for a topic today does NOT mean that it existed in the past. Similarly just because data existed in the past does NOT mean that the same data currently exists. 

  • Where is the focus of your research topic?

Identify the geographical location(s) on which your topic focuses. Your topic could focus on political boundaries, such as nation, state, country, city, or districts.  It may also focus on statistical boundaries, such as  census tracts or metro areas.

  • Who might collect data on your topic?

Major data collectors are private businesses, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and polling organizations.

  • How was the data collected?

How often was the data collected, in regular intervals over time or just once? Was it collected from a survey or interview? Was the data collected ethically?

Once you have defined the boundaries of your topic, you can use them to identify search terms, or keywords, to get started in the search process. This will ensure that your search methods are efficient and effective, save you time, and yield the most relevant results. 

  • To get started, divide your topic into different pieces and identify main concepts. 

For example, how many sweet potatoes were traded between India and the United States from 2010 to 2015? For this question, your main concepts are: sweet potatoes; trade, India, United States, 2010 and 2015.

  • Use these concepts as keywords when search for your data. Be sure to consider synonyms and word variations when coming up with appropriate search terms.   

For example, instead of “trade” you might try the search terms “import” or “export”.

If you would like to learn more about search terms and strategies, try this Search Terms and Strategies online lesson.

Search strategy #1: Start from a general data search.

This is a good strategy if you are not sure what types of variables exist or what data would be relevant for your project. Pick a portal from our general data list.

Search strategy #2: Searching by major areas of study.

This guide provides links to data sources by subject areas. These links are by no means exhaustive, but can be a good start. Visit the Online Data Sources page, find an area that fits your research and start exploring links.

Search strategy #3: Targeted search.

This can be a good strategy if you are familiar with library databases or have a sense of who is a major source of the sort of data you are seeking. Visit the Library Databases page, or go to the website of a relevant organization to look for data. 

Search strategy #4: Turn to the literature.

By searching through existing literature, you can discover datasets. When you find a relevant article, it may point you to the dataset it used. You might also browse a data repository to see if someone has archived the data from their research. 

Search strategy #5: Ask for help.

Contact Wenli Gao, data services librarian, or your subject librarian for assistance if you encounter problems in locating the data source you need.

More strategies

To learn more strategies, take this Find, Access, and Cite Data lesson developed by UH Libraries.

This lesson focuses on finding, accessing, and citing data needed for your research. This lesson includes video, audio, images, and text, and a mix of online and offline interactive activities.