3 questions you should ask when you’re looking at new data for the first time

You get a data set, or a report with facts and figures or some other collection of information structured in some way. How do you make sense of it?

In the last several months, I’ve had a few reporters who have had this challenge. It’s not nearly as simple as you might think it. Yes, yes, there are many tools that can help you if you got some .CSV or even a zip file of .PDFs.

But suppose you’re just trying to understand the headline numbers. I find there are three initial questions we should always ask:

  1. What is the source? Is the data from a trade organization, a governmental agency or an individual? How old or reliable or consistent is the effort?
  2. How is it collected? Is it self-reported or from some automatic collection?
  3. What is its context? How new is the data? Is the data trending one way or another? How often and for how long has it been collected?

Maybe data is better at confirming why something is true, not telling you if something will be true. Surveying can’t do everything. But depending on what you have, it can be a priceless check on the validity of powerful anecdotal sources.

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