Research Tools

Here’s a list of core sources for data and data analysis tools for civic research by both academics and practitioners. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

    Data Sources

  • Social Research: The Census and General Social Survey (GSS) are the standard-bearers for social statistics covering everything from religious preference and religiosity to parents education and marital status. It might take a while to find the variables you want, but they’re probably there. The biggest difficulty in using these are specifying geographic areas. The census is much better at narrowing the data down to zip-code, city, and county level.
  • Economic Data: The economy is probably the most researched topic in the world in terms of sheer data being put out. Key U.S. sources include the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Bureau of Economic Analysis. A nice list of sources by topic can be found at EconData.
  • Political Data: The American National Election Studies is the premier data sources for American political beliefs and behavior that’s been going on for decades. Similar to the GSS and Census, it might take a while to find the variables you want, but it’s probably there.
  • Nonprofit Data: The National Center for Charitable Statistics and Guidestar collect standard, large-scale data on nonprofits in the U.S. These are key sources for general trends in the nonprofit field from brute numbers, to grant-making, income, and types of organizations. The big downside is that your access to the actual data for your own analysis is severely limited.  I just found IssueLab and will get back soon with an assessment.
  • Scenes Cultural Data: Terry Clark and his collaborators have collected a vast set of databases about amenities; arts organizations and participation; and civic, demographic, and economic variables. The original point of the project was to determine the relationship between local amenities like restaurants, music venues, and grocery stores and civic participation, political participation, and economic growth. There’s a lot that can be done with this. The big downside is that the data is collected over a decade and so is a disjointed in time (e.g. comparing amenities in 2001 to voting in 1996).
  • Geographic Data: Why use geographic data? Well, most geographic data is actually social data that is linked to particular locations like neighborhoods and physical addresses. It’s ready-made for cool maps and it allows for a particular type of analysis, namely spatial, that you just can’t do otherwise. Geographic data, unlike social data, can be found in diffuse places because much of it is collected by city and state planning offices. The UChicago GIS page has a good starter list. If you’re looking for data for your city or state, check your governments’ websites.
    Quantitative Analysis Tools

  • Microsoft Excel: Yes, the most basic data tool is still incredibly helpful. While it does not offer advanced analytic features in an easy-to-use way, it is still one of the easiest, most flexible analytic software tools around.
  • SPSS: One of the most popular tools for advanced quantitative analysis is popular for its short learning curve and accessible user interface. It’s considered less powerful than the next tools which rely more on programming than user interface, but its usability makes it the program I use. Price-wise, there a numerous version with different prices that can run high, but still decent as analytic tools go.
  • STATA/SAS: STATA and SAS are software which I have used less, but are common tools in academia. STATA is very powerful and new features are consistently being developed for everything from data cleaning to boutique statistical analyses. SAS has an incredibly complex number of software products that do many different things for many kinds of organizations. I suggest looking into different packages and assessing your needs and options if you want to go this route.

  • Gapminder/Google Motion Chart: Gapminder developed this wonderfully engaging system for creating great ways to look at your data. Check out demonstrations here. Google bought the system and you can now use it for your own data through Google documents. It’s under Insert – Gadget – Motion Chart. The drawback is the lack of statistical analysis.
  • Tableau Public: Like Motion Chart, Tableau offers an accessible way to display your data in charts, graphs, and maps. In addition, it allows you to integrate these into a web content. The big drawback (along with few analytic features) is that your work becomes tied to Tableau’s public database and saved files are in a proprietary format that does not translate to other useful formats. You can get around this for a steep fee.
    Geographical Analysis Tools 

  • ArcGIS: ArcGIS is the professional’s choice for manipulating and analyzing data using geographical analysis. The big downside is that it is prohibitively EXPENSIVE. If you can afford both it and the technical training to use the advanced analytic powers, it is an incredibly powerful tool.
  • Google Documents: Yes, if you upload your list of clients, consumers, or offices with addresses to Google documents; you can display them all on a Google map. The system is not sophisticated, but if you just want a map of addresses, there’s nothing so simple.
  • Open Source GIS: There a numerous open source software programs for GIS. The most notable are Grass and QGIS. I’ve tried to use several with little luck. I expect these packages to improve in their usability greatly over the next couple years, but I don’t think they’re there yet. Also, the cool graph software of Tableau and Google seem to be moving in this direction.

If you have suggestions for other data sources or software Contact me! Data covering special topics will be introduced in specific blog posts. Click here for a list of them.

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