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Using secondary data

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Use this page to understand what secondary data is, and how to find and use it.

Defining secondary data

Secondary data is information that already exists., It’s collected by other people or organisations for a different purpose.

It’s usually readily available, although special permission may sometimes be needed to access it.

Secondary data may be provided by:

  • previous evaluations of a project or programme
  • a mid-term report
  • routine data collected by organisations.

Secondary sources can provide both quantitative and qualitative data. Secondary data can be statistics or, more unusually, raw qualitative source data (such as interview transcripts).

Usually, it’s data that’s already contained in articles, publications, reports and other documents.

Secondary data is usually used alongside other data that you have collected yourself.

Using secondary sources

Below we take a look at some sources we use to analyse secondary data.

  • Academic: Google Scholar is a straightforward way to search for academic and scholarly literature.
  • National statistics: You can freely access national and local statistics through websites, such as:

There are also a number of sites where you can get more specific data on different topics.

You may wish to review:

  • formal reports
  • minutes of meetings
  • media reports.

You’ll be analysing them to draw out themes related to the evaluation, to make a detailed analysis, or to pick out specific content.

If you’re doing a structured quantitative or qualitative analysis, it will be important to document the criteria you use to rate and analyse material.

Media analysis

A media monitoring service - a service, often paid for, that will track all mentions of your project or organisation across broadcast, print and social media, and across text and images - can be used to find content and editorial opinion.

You may find that setting up Google alerts for particular terms works for your needs.

This is particularly useful if you’re evaluating the effectiveness of a campaign by following the sharing of key messages in print, broadcast online and social media.

Literature review

A literature review is a summary of relevant literature on a topic, or of research findings which relate to the project or programme.

If you want to summarise all past evaluation findings in a particular field, your review may need to be highly structured or systematic.

This might involve creating inclusion and exclusion criteria (such as thinking about any types of evaluations you might want to include or exclude before you search).

You may also want to create search criteria (the conditions that must be met for an object to be returned by a search query) including terms to search for.

You should use boolean search terms (AND, OR, NOT, (), “”) to narrow your search. You should have a system for recording what you find.

You might also contact organisations working on similar projects which have not yet published findings to learn about outcomes and best practices.

If you have the opportunity to work with other projects in the context of a larger programme, you may be able to review their data or evaluation findings.

Questions to consider when using secondary data

Since this data was collected by other people or organisations, there are several checks that will help to make sure your secondary data is suitable and of high quality.

  • Do you have access to all relevant and available data, such as organisational records, so you’re not presenting a full view?
  • Does the data come from a dependable and reputable source? Are their results generally held to be valid?
  • What quantitative and qualitative methods were used to collect the data?
  • What methods were used to make sure the data collection was of high quality?
  • For surveys, can you get access to the questionnaire itself?
  • What were the sample size and the sampling frame, and how representative was the sample?
  • How was the analysis carried out?
  • Are the findings presented consistent with the questions used?

Advantages and disadvantages of using secondary data

Advantages

One of the main reasons for collecting secondary data is to avoid duplicating work that’s already been done. If you can use secondary data sources, you may be able to save both time and expense.

There are other reasons for reviewing or collecting secondary data.

  • It will show the gaps in existing information and the quality of evidence already available.
  • It can provide a context in which to place your analysis of the primary data that you are collecting.
  • It can give you a greater understanding and insight into the problems, issues and practice related to the field you’re evaluating.
  • It can help to suggest evaluation questions.
  • It can provide a basis for comparison for the data you’re collecting.

Disadvantages

However, there are also disadvantages to using secondary data.

  • Your use of the data and its validity will highly depend on the quality of the secondary sources used.
  • Information may not quite fit the same frame or boundaries as your primary data collection. For example, there may be important differences in the sampling.
  • The data may address some issues, criteria or indicators but not others.
  • Concepts used may not be the same.
  • Categories used may be different. Questions may be defined differently.
  • Units of measurement may be different.
  • Data may be available for some geographical areas and not others, or for certain time periods only.
  • The data may be outdated.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 31 March 2023

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