Using secondary data

Whenever secondary data sources are being used a number of points need to be checked.

a. Who is producing the data? This is a relevant question because, particularly with information from trade associations, the possibility of bias is present. An association which exists on members' subscriptions, with the objective of furthering members' interests, is unlikely to publish data that is against those members' interests. This is not to say that they will publish false data, but simply that they may not publish data that gives both sides of every question relevant to members' interests.

b. Why was the information collected in the first place? Answering this question will give greater insight into the nature, and therefore value, of the data that has been collected.

c. How was the information collected? From the chapters in this book on methods of data collection (Chapters 6-10) it will be apparent that the value of information for use in making a decision is partly determined by the method used in collecting data. In deciding how useful a particular item of secondary information is, it is therefore necessary to consult the technical appendix of the report to see how the data was collected.

d. When was the information collected? A particular problem with government statistics is that they may not be published until 18 months or even longer after the period in which the data was collected. Depending on the nature of the data and the market to which it refers, this may be a serious limitation in using the statistics.

e. Is the data comparable? In multicountry research this is a major problem. It is important to realize that classification of data varies from country to country, as do definitions of product sectors. For example, data on the sugar confectionery industry in south-east Asia may include information on candied fruits, and the definition of what constitutes a low alcohol beer varies substantially even within Europe. The answer is to check the methodology and if in doubt to contact the producer of the data.

Sources of secondary data will vary widely in terms of reliability of the data, how specific it is to a particular problem, how recent the information is, the amount of bias or vested interest in the data source and, particularly when using press report services, the amount of useful information hidden in the verbiage. Nevertheless, the desk researcher can almost always produce an extremely useful background report on any industry, in a relatively short space of time and at a relatively low cost. It is recommended that a desk research survey of secondary sources be carried out before any major field research survey is undertaken.

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