CMOs can choose from a variety of sources of free and inexpensive data to fuel market research, presentations, and infographics. Some of the best places to look are government sources.
Public data can be found either directly from the source or in large portals that collect collated data from a variety of sources. To assist you in locating such sources, here's a list of the most popular ones in the US.
- American FactFinder: If census data is all you want, the Census Bureau's data site is a more streamlined way of locating it than portals. The bureau frequently releases new datasets on its site.
- Data.gov: By far one of the largest such sites available in the US, Data.gov contains a truly stunning array of datasets gathered from a variety of sources. At last count, 390,297 raw and geospatial datasets were collected on the site, with 1,192 government apps, 236 citizen-developed apps, and 85 mobile apps. There is nothing to compare to this site in the US, though you will have to get out your search-ninja skills to find the right kind of information.
- FedStats: If Data.gov is too much to handle, FedStats is a more user-friendly portal for locating data based on topics, rather than your knowledge of government agencies. Follow the topic guides, and you will be taken to the appropriate government site and the relevant data.
- Google Public Data: This is a very small (relatively speaking) collection of datasets -- just 81 as of this writing -- but there's one interesting twist. The data is set up with pre-made visualization tools, so you can immediately explore the data graphically.
- International Monetary Fund: With all the focus on sovereign debt and other economic indicators, any marketer looking to jump into a new region would do well to see how the economy in that region is doing. Many free and some paid datasets are available.
- USA.gov: Providing data is not the only job of the federal government's flagship portal, but it still offers a fair number of links that go straight to data sources within the various government agencies.
- The World Bank: The Open Data catalogue provides more than 7,000 datasets of development and economic indicators. A very useful Databank tool lets you sort through many datasets and create and format your own reports in a few steps.
The uses for public data are as diverse as the sources themselves. You can use the data not only to track down new markets and generate interesting content for customers, but also to power apps that deliver real-time information.
One example: The Web app FlyOnTime uses data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the FAA, and the NOAA to determine the likelihood of a given flight being late based on weather, flight history, and even traffic patterns on different days of the week. FlyOnTime is not a commercial venture, but it could very well be plugged into a broader app that helps taxi companies plan arrivals at a given airport on a given day, as well as an app that gives corporate travel planners a better idea of when to schedule events.
Governments are not only urging private citizens to make use of public data. They are also encouraging commercial ventures to use it. In December, Neelie Kroes, the European Union digital agenda commissioner, proposed a revision to the EU's digital policy to make it easier and cheaper to get access to public data. This proposal could make corporations some serious money.
"We calculate that public sector information already generates €32 billion [$41.7 billion] of economic activity each year. This package would more than double that -- to around €70 billion [$91.1 billion]," Kroes said.
What are your favorite sources of free and inexpensive data?
— Brian Proffitt is a veteran journalist and analyst.
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