Finding Data

It isn’t hyperbole: journalists today have access to more data than ever before. And we have better tools available to digest and display that data. So where can you look for reliable data?

Some basic strategies that work pretty well:

  • Google it. That’s never a bad place to start and it only takes a second. You can do a lot with advanced searches, too.
  • Figure out who should have the data? Who might have it? Is this information only the NYPD or the IRS can collect? The Departments of City Planning, Buildings, Housing, Finance and Taxation all keep tabs on who owns property in New York City, where that property is located and what it can be used for. If you know who ought to have the numbers you’re looking for, you can start your search by asking them.
  • Look at recent reporting about the subject. Who has been releasing reports? Who has been cited in stories? Go ask them for data, or ask them for help finding it.
  • Wikipedia is a fantastic resource. Don’t be afraid of it. Follow up on citations, don’t just take a Wikipedian’s word for it, but do look through the sources that authors there have cited.
  • Look for think tanks and aid organizations that specialize in the issue you’re interested in.
  • Ask a librarian

Know your sources

You can get data anywhere, so it is up to you to decide whether or not you’re working with reliable data. You should know where your sources are coming from — do they have an agenda that can help you understand how they’re framing the data they put out? You can roughly guess who is behind NRA Institute for Legislative Action, but what about Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence? Don’t assume that a think tank is reliable just because it kind of feels professional.

Provenance

It is also up to you to know where your data is coming from. Did the organization hire a research firm to conduct a comprehensive study? Or did they post a little box on their website asking visitors how they feel?

Be skeptical: an advocate (or government agency) insisting that these numbers mean something doesn’t make it so.

Where to look?

The Journalism School’s Research Center maintains an excellent roundup of guides, many of which will point you to great data sets. Check out the census, business and crime guides in particular.

NICAR’s database library is a great resource. So is Amanda’s tumblr’s “data sources” tag.

And … I started a wiki page with notes from this week: https://github.com/amandabee/cunyjdata/wiki/Where-to-Find-Data