I have an interest in music, and when I read, a few days ago, that music sales had increased for the first time in over a decade, I was curious to find out more. The IFPI offered me a report that contained all the music sales data I would ever need regarding 2012.
“It is an invaluable source of authoritative data and analysis about the recorded music market globally,” said the blurb on its website.
Now I have no doubt that this is as useful a document as you would ever find, but I am quite reluctant to spend £750 (about $1100) on that data, much of which will not interest me. I mean, think of all the downloads or concert tickets I could buy for that amount?
Big Data for small businesses
In a world where data can be so expensive to purchase, is there any hope for small to medium enterprises, which need the right business data to survive – or just to get off the ground?
Yes, actually, there is. Believe it or not, there’s a vast amount of useful data out there, just waiting to be discovered. Best of all: it’s completely free.
In a recent survey of attitudes to Big Data, I was struck by this finding: “Nearly 40% of Enterprise-sized organizations in the EMA/9sight survey have indicated that they have implemented Big Data solutions on some scale, as either a production environment or a pilot system.”
Now, Enterprise-sized organisations are not generally flush with cash, so I can only conclude (in my best Sherlock Holmes manner) that these businesses are making the most of freely available data. Elementary, my dear Watson!
Free data at your fingertips
Now, obviously I work in the field of mapping software and location data, so where can I get information when I want to build a map related to a particular industry? This may be shockingly obvious; but sometimes I just Google it. Honest. However, as with everything Google-related, it can be quite hit-and-miss.
For instance, recently a food supply company asked me to find out how many hog and pig farms were in each state in the US. (Believe me, I get all kinds of requests in this job.) I chanced Googling: “location pig farms United States”.
The result was a lot of hits, but too much drilldown to get the information I required in a hurry. That said, I learned an awful lot about hog and pig farming in the US, so I’m up to date if I decide to start my own pig farm.
If I didn’t know it already, Googling reminded me of something invaluable: the best and most reliable and up-to-date data sources are often government websites. In the case of pig farms, I went on to the US Department of Agriculture website and, after a little searching around, dug out a list of the number of pigs per each state.
Manna from heaven!
What businesses often overlook is the vast amount of data available from government and its agencies. Often this can provide key information that can affect your plans and decisions for the future.
The best places to get free data – fast
You can go straight to government or state department websites to find your data, but often countries have a general data site. The top two hits on Googling “government data”, for instance are Home Data.gov and home data.gov.uk
Go beyond the first page of google hits for “government data” and you’ll discover that many countries offer similar free data services. For instance, on Australia’s data website, I can find a dataset of all barbecue sites within its parks. Useful information if you are a vendor of soft drinks or burger buns!
Another tip to get information quickly: try Wikipedia. It’s especially good for quirky or historical data. For instance, in light of the recent happenings in Rome, a colleague recently found a list of cardinals and their home countries, which he was able to plot on an eSpatial generated map.
When it comes to competitor data – or targeting specific businesses – in a broad location, you can often glean quite detailed information from a company website. Most retail outlets, for instance, have a list of locations and contact details. A bit of copying and pasting and placement in a spreadsheet and you have an extremely useful dataset, easily mapped. So, if you’re going to set up a large trendy, fashionable outlet, it’s probably a good idea to place it in a region where there are plenty of high schools within its reach.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that accessing location data – or other types of data – is easy. You have to do the work. You have to do the research. And you have to have a clear idea what you’re looking for.
You might strike lucky and get what you want in seconds, but most times it will take a little more graft.
The big benefit is that you don’t pay and it can lead to a crock of gold (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps).
Now back to pig farms
But, before I leave you, I said earlier that I had to find pig and hog farms in the States. Given the facts and figures I had to plough through, it was a relief to get that data and finally plot it on the map below. It tells me clearly that if I ever do decide to set up a pig farm, the West Coast is just crying out for me.
Yeah, I can just see myself in the California sunshine, wearing my shades and herding my pigs… With a surfboard.