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Statistical Data: Introduction

Resources for obtaining statistical data


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This is a guide to major sources of national, state, local, foreign, and international statistical data available at the University of North Texas Libraries and on the Internet. Includes links to major statistical agencies at all levels of government and to major statistical indexes.

On this page are listed some of the most frequently used sources of statistics. If you don't find what you need here, check the sources listed in the other tabs in this guide.

U.S. Federal Statistics: Where to Start

The U.S. government collects more statistics than any other entity in the world. Federal government agencies need this information in order to meet legal mandates and so that they can plan and evaluate various programs. Others—including state and local government agencies, academic researchers, and commercial entities—have found the U.S. federal government to be one of the most reliable and consistent sources of accurate, comparable data.

Unlike some countries, the United States does not have a central agency responsible for collecting statistics. Over 100 federal agencies are authorized to collect and publish numerical data on various topics. Faced with this overwhelming array of choices, you may find it difficult to know just where to look first. These are some of the most popular compilations of statistics from various agencies.

State and Local Statistics: Where to Start

Most of the sources listed above under U.S. Government Agencies provide statistics on individual states, counties, and at least the major metropolitan areas. Don’t forget to check the U.S. sources even if you are looking for information at a level of geographic detail more specific than the entire U.S.

Many times data are collected by state, county, or municipal government agencies, or by regional consortia such as the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Sometimes lower level government agencies submit the data they have collected to higher state or federal agencies. Sometimes the lower agencies obtain their data from the higher agencies.

If you are looking for data at a certain geographic level, you can try contacting an agency at that level of government to see if they have the data you need. For instance, go to a county government Web site to find county level data. If you are looking for information on a specific topic such as education, try to contact the agencies responsible for that area at all levels of government. Many times agencies will post collected data on their Web sites, but sometimes they may have information available that has not been published.

Foreign and International Statistics: Where to Start

Standard Classifications

In order to make statistics consistent and comparable to each other, several standard classifications have been developed.

For a detailed explanation of what statistical classifications and standards are, and how they are developed and maintained, see the report Standard Statistical Classifications: Basic Principles from the U.N. Statistical Commission.

Potential Pitfalls

These are several issues you should be aware of when you are looking for and using statistical data.

Statistical tables may be difficult to interpret

Be sure to read any explanatory material accompanying your table, such as a preface, footnotes, or a glossary. This will clarify details such as how certain terms have been defined for the purposes of the study, whether a number is a percentage or a quantity, how the data was collected, and how the data compares to similar data collected at a different time or from a different source.

There may not be published statistics for the exact variables you are seeking

Perhaps no one has collected the data. Perhaps the data are not available at the level of specificity you need, or the raw data have not been analyzed and published in the format you need. Sometimes by directly contacting an agency that collects data on your subject, you can obtain unpublished data customized to your specific needs.

The most recent data on a given topic may be several years old

Some data are only collected once every five to ten years. In some cases, data on a particular topic may have been collected only once, for a special project, and may have never been updated once the project was completed. Once data have been collected, it may take a long time for it to be compiled, analyzed, and published. Online sources tend to be updated in a timelier manner than paper sources, so if you are using a paper source, be sure to check whether there is an online version.

Some statistics may not be available for free

Sometimes private organizations collect information and make it available only upon payment of a fee. This is especially likely to be true in the case of marketing and financial data, but may also be true in the case of some data that is useful for social programs.

Statistics are primarily abstract, numerical data

For privacy reasons, personal information is usually not made public. The U.S. Census is forbidden by law to make available any identifying information about the persons or companies it surveys until a certain number of years have passed. You may be able to obtain information on specific companies and public figures when this is needed to ensure their accountability. For example, publicly traded companies are required to file financial information with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and publicly elected officials are required to file information with the Federal Election Commission.