Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Capturing Research (Types of Software)

Today I will discuss how to keep track of your data.

Everything you collect about your research context is data. This includes, for example, your observations of the environment, your personal reflections, documents you collect and information collected using survey instruments. All of this research data accumulates rapidly. Furthermore, in many qualitative forms of research a research plan develops over time as new data is collected. Thus, the researcher must have a way of storing data and a way of finding these data later. In addition to a paper filing system there are three different types of software that I have found useful for these capturing and organizing tasks: note-taking, database and indexing software.

In all three cases there are lots of options. I will tell you what I use but you should try to find programs that fit in with how you think and work. There is a considerable overlap between the three and any one could be used for basically the same purposes. Why I use all three kinds of programs has a lot more to do with how my data collection needs developed over time than any specific data collection strategy.

Paper Filing System
If you already have an effective filing system continue to use it. I recommend that you keep all your research files in the same place. You might find it helpful to purchase a file box specifically for each research project and label it prominently with a name, a date and key words. What ever you decide to do make sure that these data are safe. Consider keeping it locked up and keep it somewhere where it is unlikely to get lost, stolen or damaged.

Note-taking Software
Notebook programs are just like they sound they are a sort of virtual notebook you can use to dump files, images, websites, etc. However, you can also use them to outline ideas and organize information in hierarchical lists. I use two different programs for this purpose. I use a program called NoteTaker to keep track of my initial development of idea and a to provide a central organization of miscellaneous pieces of data. I use NoteTaker because it was the best for my needs a decade ago. I still used it weekly. I also have a copy of MacJournal which uses an approach to note taking that is more like a file system than a notebook. I use MacJournal because it will handle and organize clippings related to blogging and nicely interfaces with the blogging platforms I use (Blogger and WordPress). Recent versions of Microsoft Office have a note taking feature (called OneNote on Windows and Notebook layout view in Word on the Mac). If you are exploring this type of program I would start there and see if it meets your needs.

Database Software
I use Filemaker (the big brother of Bento) for my research data. One advantage of both of these applications is that they have supporting iPhone and iPad apps. For each new project I create a new database that has fields specific to that research project. There is very little in common between this different databases because of the different needs of each project. Typically I start by creating a spreadsheet with all the fields I think I need and then import that into Filemaker (Bento will also do this). This creates a database that looks like a spreadsheet. I then adjust each of the field descriptions to match the type and size of data I am expecting. Finally, I create one or more additional views of the database to make data entry and viewing of my data easier. If necessary I created an export template so I can import the data into a different program.

Indexing Programs
The second type of data storage application is the free-form indexing program. This is a program that you can dump any kind of information into, add keywords and notes and then search for it. This is what I use to capture random information that I think I might need sometime but at this point don’t know what to associate it with (e.g., snippets of text, web pages, documents). The beauty of these types of programs is that using keywords to organize allows you to have one piece of information in multiple places. I use EagleFILER but there is almost an infinite variety of these programs. Features to look for include hotkeys to enter data from any program, fast searching, integration with other software, and text based storage. Evernote is currently one of the most popular snippet storing and indexing programs.

You will find bits and pieces about capturing data in most research methods books. Two good introductory books that have helpful sections on capturing data are:

Bell, Judith. 2010. Doing your research project : A guide for first-time researchers in education, health and social science. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. 2009. The craft of research. 3rd edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

It does not much matter how you record your data as long as you can find it when you need it. There is nothing worse than knowing you have a key piece of data that you need to prove your point and being unable to find it. Happy collecting.


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