What is Data Collection? Definition, Types, Tools, and Techniques

Knowledge is power, information is knowledge, and data is information in digitized form, at least as defined in IT. Hence, data is power. But before you can leverage that data into a successful strategy for your organization or business, you need to gather it. That’s your first step.

So, to help you get the process started, we shine a spotlight on data collection. What exactly is it? Believe it or not, it’s more than just doing a Google search! Furthermore, what are the different types of data collection? And what kinds of data collection tools and data collection techniques exist?

If you want to get up to speed about the data collection process, you’ve come to the right place. 

Data Collection: A Definition

Before we define collection, it’s essential to ask the question, “What is data?” The abridged answer is, data is various kinds of information formatted in a particular way. Therefore, data collection is the process of gathering, measuring, and analyzing accurate data from a variety of relevant sources to find answers to research problems, answer questions, evaluate outcomes, and forecast trends and probabilities.

Our society is highly dependent on data, which underscores the importance of collecting it. Accurate data collection is necessary to make informed business decisions, ensure quality assurance, and keep research integrity.

During data collection, the researchers must identify the data types, the sources of data, and what methods are being used. We will soon see that there are many different data collection methods. There is heavy reliance on data collection in research, commercial, and government fields.

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Before an analyst begins collecting data, they must answer three questions first:

  • What’s the goal or purpose of this research?
  • What kinds of data are they planning on gathering?
  • What methods and procedures will be used to collect, store, and process the information?

Additionally, we can break up data into qualitative and quantitative types. Qualitative data covers descriptions such as color, size, quality, and appearance. Quantitative data, unsurprisingly, deals with numbers, such as statistics, poll numbers, percentages, etc.

Why Do We Need Data Collection?

Before a judge makes a ruling in a court case or a general creates a plan of attack, they must have as many relevant facts as possible. The best courses of action come from informed decisions, and information and data are synonymous.

The concept of data collection isn’t a new one, as we’ll see later, but the world has changed. There is far more data available today, and it exists in forms that were unheard of a century ago. The data collection process has had to change and grow with the times, keeping pace with technology.

Whether you’re in the world of academia, trying to conduct research, or part of the commercial sector, thinking of how to promote a new product, you need data collection to help you make better choices.

What Are the Different Methods of Data Collection?

While the phrase “data collection” may sound all high-tech and digital, it doesn’t necessarily entail things like computers, big data, and the internet. Data collection could mean a telephone survey, a mail-in comment card, or even some guy with a clipboard asking passersby some questions. But let’s see if we can sort the different data collection methods into a semblance of organized categories.

Data collection breaks down into two methods. As a side note, many terms, such as techniques, methods, and types, are interchangeable and depending on who uses them. One source may call data collection techniques “methods,” for instance. But whatever labels we use, the general concepts and breakdowns apply across the board whether we’re talking about marketing analysis or a scientific research project.

The two methods are:

  • Primary.

As the name implies, this is original, first-hand data collected by the data researchers. This process is the initial information gathering step, performed before anyone carries out any further or related research. Primary data results are highly accurate provided the researcher collects the information. However, there’s a downside, as first-hand research is potentially time-consuming and expensive.

  • Secondary.

Secondary data is second-hand data collected by other parties and already having undergone statistical analysis. This data is either information that the researcher has tasked other people to collect or information the researcher has looked up. Simply put, it’s second-hand information. Although it’s easier and cheaper to obtain than primary information, secondary information raises concerns regarding accuracy and authenticity. Quantitative data makes up a majority of secondary data.

Specific Data Collection Techniques

Let’s get into specifics. Using the primary/secondary methods mentioned above, here is a breakdown of specific techniques.

Primary Data Collection

  • Interviews.

The researcher asks questions of a large sampling of people, either by direct interviews or means of mass communication such as by phone or mail. This method is by far the most common means of data gathering.

  • Projective Technique.

Projective data gathering is an indirect interview, used when potential respondents know why they're being asked questions and hesitate to answer. For instance, someone may be reluctant to answer questions about their phone service if a cell phone carrier representative poses the questions. With projective data gathering, the interviewees get an incomplete question, and they must fill in the rest, using their opinions, feelings, and attitudes.

  • Delphi Technique.

The Oracle at Delphi, according to Greek mythology, was the high priestess of Apollo’s temple, who gave advice, prophecies, and counsel. In the realm of data collection, researchers use the Delphi technique by gathering information from a panel of experts. Each expert answers questions in their field of specialty, and the replies are consolidated into a single opinion.

  • Focus Groups.

Focus groups, like interviews, are a commonly used technique. The group consists of anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen people, led by a moderator, brought together to discuss the issue.

  • Questionnaires.

Questionnaires are a simple, straightforward data collection method. Respondents get a series of questions, either open or close-ended, related to the matter at hand.

Secondary Data Collection

Unlike primary data collection, there are no specific collection methods. Instead, since the information has already been collected, the researcher consults various data sources, such as:

  • Financial Statements
  • Sales Reports
  • Retailer/Distributor/Deal Feedback
  • Customer Personal Information (e.g., name, address, age, contact info)
  • Business Journals
  • Government Records (e.g., census, tax records, Social Security info)
  • Trade/Business Magazines
  • The internet

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Data Collection Tools

Now that we’ve explained the various techniques, let’s narrow our focus even further by looking at some specific tools. For example, we mentioned interviews as a technique, but we can further break that down into different interview types (or “tools”).

  • Word Association.

The researcher gives the respondent a set of words and asks them what comes to mind when they hear each word.

  • Sentence Completion.

Researchers use sentence completion to understand what kind of ideas the respondent has. This tool involves giving an incomplete sentence and seeing how the interviewee finishes it.

  • Role-Playing.

Respondents are presented with an imaginary situation and asked how they would act or react if it was real.

  • In-Person Surveys.

The researcher asks questions in person.

  • Online/Web Surveys.

These surveys are easy to accomplish, but some users may be unwilling to answer truthfully, if at all.

  • Mobile Surveys.

These surveys take advantage of the increasing proliferation of mobile technology. Mobile collection surveys rely on mobile devices like tablets or smartphones to conduct surveys via SMS or mobile apps.

  • Phone Surveys.

No researcher can call thousands of people at once, so they need a third party to handle the chore. However, many people have call screening and won’t answer.

  • Observation.

Sometimes, the simplest method is the best. Researchers who make direct observations collect data quickly and easily, with little intrusion or third-party bias. Naturally, it’s only effective in small-scale situations.

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