Data types

One way to think about the use of data in research is according to its type. This will influence the choices you make in methodology and analysis of the material you acquire.

  • Quantitative data is the most widely available data and is statistical and numerical in nature.
  • Qualitative data draws on textual or audio-visual resources.
  • Geospatial data generally refers to data which has an explicit geographic or spatial element.
  • Metadata is any description or description of how research data was collected and used, which can become an important source of information for researchers.

Quantitative data

There is a long established tradition of compiling statistics and tabulating numerical data for the purpose of research. This is usually derived from national or regional surveys carried out by the stats or commercial companies.

In the past dissemination of findings has taken the form of printed publications such as economic bulletins, digests, statistical yearbooks and annual reports. These have been produced by national statistical agencies, central banks or commercial intelligence publishers.

The most recent data is generally available online but older data is not always digitised at the same time. Researchers with an interest in data going beyond the last ten years may find gaps in online resources. They should therefore be prepared to combine online searches with searches of the statistical print collections when necessary.

Qualitative data

Research projects aiming at measuring activity in terms of their quality, rather than quantity, use methods such as focus groups, diaries and (most usually) semi-structured interviews. Qualitative data may be in some cases confidential or difficult to contextualise, but this does not prevent it being collected, preserved and re-used.

As a result, an ever-growing amount of qualitative research data is being deposited with national data centres and institutional repositories. Most often, this is available as text transcriptions of the original interviews. However, in many cases the original audio or video from such projects is also being made available.

Geospatial data

This is a wide-ranging category, but it is often characterised by the fact it includes spatial coordinates that describe the location of features or areas on the Earth. It may range from addresses or electoral boundaries to using satellite imagery or geotagging.

Such data is best understood in relation to the analysis or analytical tools that are to be employed, and in fact may also be referred to as GIS data. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are the various tools that use layers of geographic data to produce visualisations or maps to inform research.


Documentation of any sort that describes how data was created or used in the course of a research project is referred to as metadata.

The dissemination of data outside of these original research projects means metadata plays an important role in understanding and contextualisation. Codebooks, survey questionnaires and interview schedules are typical examples.

In some cases, metadata can be sufficiently useful that subsequent researchers may use it as data in itself.