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Library Research Guides

Geospatial Data Resources

for SNRE 531

How was the data gathered?

It can be helpful to think about how the data you are interested in might have been gathered. There are two broad types of data collection:


  • Data collected to answer a specific research question or in anticipation of the need for data to answer research questions and aid policy decisions
  • Example: American Time Use Survey, General Social Survey

Administrative or Procedural

  • Data collected during a procedural operation of an organization
  • Example: number of people receiving food stamps in Washtenaw County, amount spent on advertising by large tobacco firms

Your data might not be a shapefile

Keep in mind, your data might exist independently of the shapes.  For example, a table on average birth-weights by county, or average precipitation by state.  You can get tables for those data and join them to the shapes later.

Defining Your Topic and Unit of Analysis

When you define your topic and unit of analysis, you should look at your research question and ask:

  • What are the specifics of the data I need to use to answer my research question? What is my topic? What unit of analysis, geographic unit, and time unit (frequency) do I need? Do I need time series data?

Define Your Topic

Use specific language when defining your topic. This will help you identify a variable or variables.


  • I'm looking for the percentage of people living below the poverty line in areas where hurricanes frequently hit.

Identify Unit of Analysis

Who or what is being described by your variable(s)?


  • Individuals, families, households
  • Institutions (companies, schools, non-profits, health facilities)
  • Products (commodities, stocks, currencies)

Identify Time Frame and Frequency

For what point in time do you want to know this about the people, institutions, or products you identified? How often do you want to know it about them?


  • As recent as possible, plus data from 10 and 20 years before that
  • Every month in 1995 and 1996

Identify Geographic Unit

What part of the world is your research question concerned with?


  • Counties in Michigan
  • Countries currently in the EU
  • Businesses headquartered in China

Identify Whether this is Time Series Data

Are you looking for data collected at regular intervals over time? Identifying what sort of time series may be helpful as you search for data.

  • Cross sectional: collected at the same point of time for several individuals
  • Longitudinal/Panel: data collected at a sequence of time points for each of a sample of individuals
  • Time Series: data collected at a sequence of time points, usually at a uniform frequency
  • Pooled cross sectional time series: mixture of time series data and cross-section data

* Adapted from Barbara Mento's guide to Finding Data at Boston College


Who would collect this data?

Think about your data, including all of the specifics that you've come up with.

What organization or agency would likely collect this data?


  • Generally free, may be on the internet, occasionally on CD-ROMs
  • Data format usually a shapefile (.shp plus other files)
  • Collected through research to help aid policy decisions
  • Also collected through administrative processes as a result of work the government does
  • Examples: Federal level: Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Center for Disease Control


  • May be free or subscription/fee based
  • Data format varies widely
  • Collected through research to help aid policy decisions
  • Examples: World Health Organization, United Nations, OECD, World Bank