Search Tools and Datafinders
Before the proliferation of the Internet finding meaningful government statistical data for market research was daunting. The U.S. government is the largest data collector in the world! I would go to the library and copy many, many pages, or to the government bookstore and buy volume after volume.
Not just the Census Bureau, but many other government agencies, really do collect information that can be vital to your marketing plan, and now, thanks to Al Gore, it is so much easier to track down.
Most data is available on CD ROM, but many fewer printed reports are being sent to Depository Libraries.*
There is so much data that, like many other government resources, it is quite overwhelming. It can’t be mentioned often enough—plan before you start and keep track of your strategy and key words, or you will get lost in the weeds. ( Remember the cat telling Alice—if you don’t know where you are going…any road will get you there. ) Don’t get discouraged, once you find important and helpful data you will be able to update your business plan regularly.
One key point to remember–there is a difference between establishments and businesses (or firms). In other words, a large manufacturing concern or a service business may have one main location, and several, or many, subsidiary locations. Make sure that you are comparing similar types, as there are many different Census tables with varying coverage.
* Depository libraries were established to provide a free and easily accessible source for government documents. Some university libraries require an ID to use the collection, but many provide public access for U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) publications. Also, be aware that many government reports are published first by their originating agency, and then reprinted by GPO. So if you cannot find a document you need, it may be available under another publication number.
Many expensive market research reports are based on various government data, so why not go to the source? Most business people feel that the big research firms do a great deal of their own research, but I have not found that to be the case. If you look carefully at the sources of information, most reports cite only other reports from that publisher. It is difficult to discover when and how any independent research was completed. Aside from being much cheaper—that is, FREE—you will likely discover unexpected government data that will be quite useful. There are so many really useful series and tables that they cannot be described here. Instead I will focus on how to determine what is available.
There are also quite a few web sites that provide search results for you—for a fee—but most users can learn to find what they need themselves. Search skills are something that has to be learned, but these skills are needed more and more as the information available on the web increases exponentially.
The problem with using U.S. government statistics is not finding useful datasets, but finding too many. This post covers a few of the more general search engines, and the next, Part 2, will cover more targeted datafinders. It will probably be easier to use the targeted search capability, but the general portals do provide a lot of probably useful surprises. For example, who knew that the FDIC has a huge amount of data available on records of individual banks. I mean not that they collect it, but that you can see it?
If you are familiar with Search.USA.gov you may want to start from the Data and Statistics page. This is where you need to take a deep breath and plan your strategy. There are many rabbit trails to follow from this portal, so keep track of where you have been, and those links that you want to explore later. Data and Statistics provides access to a plethora of datasets—everything from Federally Leased Properties by state to the U.S. Chemical Substance Inventory. One very important dataset that you can reach from this page is the U.S. Government Budget, which is outside the scope of this series of posts. ( BUT, don’t ignore this very important source of information! ) A link from the Data and Statistics page can take you to another portal for Business Data and Statistics. This portal, of course, is just a resting place along the ever-lengthening trail. ( Got breadcrumbs? )
From this Business Data and Statistics portal there is a list of links to other statistical portals. There are two that seem especially promising. This first is Searchable Government Databases on Economics, Business and Finance, which is a very complete University of Saint Mary’s Library guide. This library has an almost bewildering series of guides, so don’t go there without some time to look.
The second portal worth a good look is Data.gov, which includes access to 389,977 raw and geospatial datasets, 1,084 government apps—all from 172 government agencies. Data.gov does seem to be an especially user-friendly site, and provides ideas for educational uses for all levels.
And, don’t forget to try the many links to other sources found on every page!
Census Bureau sub-agencies also publish many one-time compilations and useful research reports. For example, the Center for Economic Studies publishes recent reports such as “Nature Versus Nurture in the Origins of Highly Productive Businesses: An Exploratory Analysis of U.S. Manufacturing Establishments,” “Wage Dynamics along the Life-Cycle of Manufacturing Plants,” “Entry, Growth, and the Business Environment: A Comparative Analysis of Enterprise Data from the U.S. and Transition Economies.”
The second part of this post will cover the various targeted search engines and datafinders available that will help you find the statistics you need to build your business plan.