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The purpose of data is to provide information to aid decision making. Data awareness can assist users to select data sets that provide accurate answers to the questions they are attempting to answer; or one that is ‘fit for purpose’. Before actively looking at data sources it is first necessary to define the data need. Being able to specify what it is you are trying to find out or what you are hoping to achieve from the outset, will help ensure you get the data you require to make well informed decisions.
The following questions can be useful in helping you define your data need:
• what is the topic or subject area you are interested in?
• who or what is your key population? (be specific about age, sex or geographical specifications)
• what are you trying to find out about this issue or group?
• are you interested in information relating to a specific time frame?
It would be inaccurate to make statements about the general health of a community by considering only hospital data as this data is not representative of the whole community. It ignores health conditions not treated in a hospital setting and is therefore, insufficient in providing all the information required to make a well informed decision.
Access appropriate data sets
Once a data need has been identified, it is then necessary to develop a better understanding of the kind of data required. There are many sources of data available, but careful consideration should be given to choosing the right data for the intended purpose. Choosing a data set that is not appropriate, can lead to inaccurate conclusions being drawn.
It is useful to be aware of the collection types that can be used to obtain quantitative data such as, censuses, samples and administrative by-product:
• a sample survey collects data from only a subset of the population. This subset is selected in such a way that it represents the total population as accurately as possible. The subset (or sample) is often selected randomly
• a census aims to collect information from everyone or everything under study. The Census of Population and Housing, conducted by the ABS, is Australia’s most well known example. Others include the school census, prisoner census and agricultural census
• another common data source is administrative by-product. This involves production of statistics from data that have been collected for some other purpose, usually administrative. For example, the ABS uses administrative by-product data to produce information on building approvals.
ABS survey data
The ABS is Australia’s official statistical organisation, and is committed to collecting and disseminating statistics to assist and encourage informed decision making, research and discussion within governments.
The ABS provides statistics free of charge via the ABS website – www.abs.gov.au – which is updated daily to enable access to a wide range of new product releases. Statistics are available on a range of topics on the ABS website, and can be found under the following themes.
Economy: Statistics are available on major economic fields that can be used by government to understand trends in the economy, identify drivers of economic growth, evaluate economic performance and for the formulation and assessment of economic policy. Australian Economic Indicators (cat. no. 1350.0) provides a monthly compendium of economic statistics, presenting comprehensive tables, graphs, commentaries, feature articles and technical notes.
Environment and Energy: A program of environmental statistics was implemented by the ABS in 1991 in response to an increasing demand for information investigating the relationship between social, environmental and economic statistics. A time series of environmental statistics is available to assist with informed decision making. The Environment and Energy theme page provides a portal to a range of useful data.
Industry: A broad cross-section of Australian industry data is collected on topics including agriculture, construction, transport, tourism and the services industry.
People: A range of data is available on Australia’s population including, education, health, and housing to assist with monitoring the progress of society. Australian Social Trends (cat. no. 4102.0), released quarterly, presents statistical analysis and commentary on a wide range of current social issues.
Regional: Statistics on regional and rural areas are available for many standard data sets from the ABS. See Topics @ a Glance on the ABS website, for more information.
ABS census data
The Census of Population and Housing held every five years is the largest statistical operation undertaken by the ABS. The census aims to:
• measure the population
• provide certain key characteristics of everyone in Australia on census night
• better understand the dwellings in which Australian people live
• provide timely, high quality and relevant information for small geographic areas and small population groups
• complement the information provided by other ABS surveys.
Census data is provided via a range of different tools available on the Census webpage on the ABS website.
Other sources of ABS data
ABS customised data
While published information is available free of charge on the ABS website, more complex or detailed data enquiries may be available on a fee-for-service basis through the ABS National Information and Referral Service, on 1300 135 070 (International callers +16 2 9268 4909) or visit the ABS website – www.abs.gov.au.
Confidentialised Unit Record Files (CURFs) are an invaluable source of information for ‘high-end’ researchers and statisticians investigating a wide range of social or labour related topics. They are used to undertake data manipulations requiring individual unit record data reflecting the diversity within a population. Some typical applications include production of papers, journal articles, books, PhD theses, microsimulation, modelling and conducting detailed analyses. Data contained in a CURF is also used for producing detailed tabulations requiring data in a disaggregated form.
CURFs are released to authorised clients for approved purposes of statistical analysis and research. Find out more on the CURF Microdata Entry Page on the ABS website.
Other sources of data
Data are increasingly available from a number of other sources, and can be accessed electronically over the internet, or in publication format.
Published data may be available through libraries (public and university), government departments, community groups, newspapers, books, journals and abstracts.
Data may also be available from the following Australian and international organisations:
Australian Statistical Organisations
• Axiss Australia
• Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)
• Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)
• Office of Economic and Statistical Research (OESR)
• Bureau of Tourism Research (BTR)
• Bureau of Transport Economics (BTE)
• Productivity Commission
• Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA)
• Australian Social Science Data Archive (SSDA) – Australian National University
• Australia’s Economic and Financial Data according to IMF Special Data Dissemination Standard.
International Statistical Organisations
• UNData – United Nations Statistical Department – On-line data service
• International Monetary Fund (IMF) – Special Data Dissemination Standard
• OECD Statistics Portal.
Collecting your own data
If a data need cannot be met by any available data source, it may be necessary to collect data. This can be a costly and time consuming exercise depending on the size and scope of the project. Either way, to ensure the data will provide the information needed, there are a number of statistical processes that need to be undertaken. These include: identifying the target population; developing an appropriate survey and sample design; drafting and testing the collection instrument; and employing correct data processing procedures.
The ABS has released a ABS Forms Design Standards Manual, 2010 (cat. no. 1530.0) which provides standards that can be used in the design and preparation of self-administered collection forms (paper and electronic). A good working knowledge of these standards should aid the development of forms that collect accurate data, ease the burden of respondents and ensure efficient processing.
The National Statistical Service (NSS) has also released a Basic Survey Design manual that provides an understanding of the issues involved in survey design. It includes key issues to be considered when designing surveys and outlines the advantages and disadvantages of different sample design methods.
The ABS also delivers training courses in Basic Survey Design and Principles of Questionnaire Design.
Assess the quality of available data
Data quality varies from one source to the next due to a wide range of factors. Quality is generally accepted as “fitness for purpose” and this implies an assessment of an output, with specific reference to its intended objectives or aims. When making an assessment of the fitness of data, it is important to keep in mind where the data has come from, how and why it was collected, and whether the data is of suitable quality for your requirements.
The ABS Data Quality Framework, 2009 (cat.no. 1520.0) can assist in evaluating the quality of statistical collections and products (e.g. survey data, statistical tables and administrative data). It is comprised of seven dimensions of quality which are Institutional Environment, Relevance, Timeliness, Accuracy, Coherence, Interpretability and Accessibility. All seven dimensions should be used in quality assessment and reporting. However, the importance of each dimension may vary depending on the data source and the requirement of the user.
As part of its DATAfitness program the NSS has developed a tool called Data Quality Online (DQO). DQO helps people use the seven dimensions of the ABS Data Quality Framework to:
• define the quality of a data item or collection of data items (prepare a quality statement)
• assess the fitness for purpose of data in the context of a data need
• identify data gaps and areas for future improvement.
Data Quality Online is located on the NSS website at http://www.nss.gov.au/dataquality/.