Evaluating a Data Source

Categories: Big Data, MentorSpace

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Collecting, analyzing, and reporting with data can be daunting. The person that SAGE Publishing — the parent of MethodSpace — turns to when it has questions is Diana Aleman – editor extraordinaire for SAGE Stats and U.S. Political Stats. And now she is bringing her trials, tribulations, and expertise with data to you in a monthly blog, Tips with Diana. Stay tuned for Diana’s experiences, tips, and tricks with finding, analyzing and visualizing data. View Diana’s blog HERE.

Previously, I’ve discussed factors you should consider when evaluating a data set that meets your information needs. This included reading through the data documentation, noting any data outliers, and so on. However, like all other kinds of content, numbers can be just as easily manipulated to paint a rosier or different picture than actually exists. For this reason, it is equally important to evaluate the source organization that is responsible for collecting and distributing the data set you’ve found and want to use.

The breakdown

So what are some ways you can evaluate a data source? Like the evaluation of an actual data file, you should go into the evaluation of a data source with a few questions in mind.

  • What survey questions were used to collect this data? These are usually provided by the source and reading through these on your own can help you note any subtle wording that may have influenced the respondent’s answers or unclear wording that many respondents could have interpreted differently.
  • What was the sample size and is it appropriate for the population discussed? A sample size of 50 people for the analysis of a population of 50,000 is not quite reliable.
  • How and when was this data collection carried out? Is the data based on a telephone survey that was conducted five years ago? The application of that data to the present is not a judicious decision.
  • Why did the organization carry out the survey and share their results? This is key to understanding what motivations or incentives the organization may have in disseminating or even suppressing the information.

But the data I found comes from a major organization! It must be fine, right?

Thanks to the internet, we are presented now more than ever with an infinite amount of information from a myriad of sources that all claim authority. However, these claims, the brand name of the organization, or size of the data should not by itself validate its authority. As much as major organizations are perceived as reliable and trustworthy, all organizations have interests in mind that may influence what they included in the survey and how they carried that survey out. With that in mind, it’s always best to evaluate a data source you’ve come across with a healthy degree of skepticism.

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