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Getting Started: Existing Data Sources

I teach a graduate seminar in qualitative research methods, which presents an excellent opportunity to not only share my knowledge with others, but to refresh that knowledge, and even learn a few new tricks. One of my favourite topics is how to find and use preexisting data sources to generate new ideas and new research. While it might seem like the only research we ever see in journal articles or promoted within policing circles contains big ideas, big studies, big data and big findings, a lot of really good exploratory, descriptive and other types of studies can be generated just by knowing where to look for interesting data someone has thoughtfully provided for you courtesy of Professor Google. And, no, I’m not suggesting citing Wikipedia or reading just anything off the Internet*.

What kinds of sources? I'm glad you asked! I’ve prepared a brief intro, so let’s get started:

Administrative sources

Government websites are full of lots and lots of data, records, documents, photos and other goodies of which a budding researcher may wish to study. In Canada, the Mother Ship of repositories is the Library and Archives of Canada, which is a veritable treasure trove of historical and contemporary documents (including old census files, land tract information, military records, government documents and so on).

For those interested in laws or the legal context for various phenomenon, federal and provincial ministries provide government briefing notes, house debates, white papers and other materials.

One of the best, if largely untapped resources, for policing research can be provincial and federal inquiries (a little trick I learned from my colleague, Margaret Beare).

My personal favourite resource, however, are coroners’ inquest records. For anyone studying topics related to use of force, deaths in custody, among other topics, provincial websites providing inquest summaries and verdicts on individual cases are seriously helpful resources. You can access the summaries online and then file a request to the appropriate coroners’ office for access to the fuller record, which usually provides a much more detailed description and analysis of events (I get mine emailed to me in PDF form).

To give you an example of why I love coroners' records, and how useful they can be: when the CBC published its 'study' on 'deadly force' (, I immediately knew there were problems with their methodology because I had been collecting and studying coroners' records. The result was a MA study by Jennifer Prevett (hopefully to be publicly accessible soon) that challenged the methodology by looking at the Ontario cases cited by CBC.

Check out:

Traditional media sources

Universities and colleges typically provide access to searchable databases containing the major Canadian daily newspapers. This is also true for many public libraries. And many other news outlets have online archives that can be accessed for free or for a fee. If you absolutely don’t have access, one of my students, Vinny, who is a social media guru, also relies heavily on social media groups that curate content based on their group interests. So, for example, a group with an interest in missing persons, might share links on new or historical cases.

There’s a lot you can do with newspapers. I once used the "letters to the editor" section of a local newspaper to explore public attitudes towards the siting of a half-way home. It's amazing what you can come up with a little access!

New media

I love social media. It’s a great open source method for collecting data on people’s behaviours, thoughts and attitudes, often in real time with current events. Typical sources include Twitter, Reddit, websites, blogs, and Instagram, among others. Some researchers use Facebook, although the privacy restrictions constraining researcher activities makes it more cumbersome to use.

To give you one example of how, say, Reddit could be an useful data source: myself and colleagues Johnny Nhan and Ryan Broll conducted a mixed-methods study on Reddit postings following the Boston Marathon bombing. What we found is that regular people were using their computer and other skills to identify, track, collect and share information on suspected offenders. What this study provided was insight into this phenomenon and how police and security agencies will need to monitor and harness such activities in response to future terrorist and other high-profile events.

The other thing I love about social media data? There are now a tonne of free or low cost software packages that will allow you to collect, save and analyze data. For example, when my team and I were tracking online Twitter use by girls in jihad-affiliated groups, we were able to collect hundreds of thousands of postings over a one-year period thanks to software that was originally designed for measuring Twitter presence and impact for marketing purposes: Twitonomy (there are others too, like Dr. Tweety, but my team prefers Twitonomy).

While the above isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of available data sources, it does provide a starting point for thinking about how to conduct research that doesn’t rely on’ primary data collection’ (ie. going out and doing your own footwork – interviews, focus groups, field observations, surveys, etc). Now, get cracking!

*Please note: this is especially the case if you happen to be one of my students! Shame!!

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