Government Information 101: Part 3, Finding Gov Info

How to Find Government Information

So, you've learned the basics of US government and you know the main government information resources. Now you're actually looking for a government document. Where do you start? Ask yourself:

  • At what level of government do I need this information?
    • Federal, state, local (county or city)
  • What government branch or agency might be involved? Stated another way: who would have a need to gather this data or information?
  • If you're looking for data or demographic information, you should also ask: what level of geography do I need this data for? The answer could be: nation, region, state, county/borough, city, PUMA, zip code, neighborhood, census tract, or census block. For more on geographies for NYC neighborhoods, see this handout.

Gov Info Search Example

Here's an example. I'm looking for the number of traffic accident fatalities in New York State in 2010.

At what government level do I need this?

Well, I'm looking for the total number of traffic accident deaths in New York State, so that's a state-level question–though it may also be reported at the federal level.

What government agency would gather that information?

It turns out that this is reported by two different agencies. Traffic deaths are reported both by the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics (there is a GIS-run state statistic finder), and the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which lists data on Deaths & Mortality, including causes of death. Under causes of death, the NCHS reports traffic-accident deaths under the broader category of "Accidents (unintentional injuries)," which is subdivided into "Transport accidents," which is further subdivided into motor vehicle accidents, other land transport accidents, and water/air/space accidents. The NCHS also provides direct data through CDC Wonder, which allows you to choose variables such as age, and specify the specific type of transport accidents (for instance, you can choose to include pedestrian, motorcycle, car, bus, railway, and streetcar accidents, but exclude animal and water transport accidents). I chose ages 18+ (to capture all adults).

What level of geography do I need?

In addition to the total state number of deaths, I'd also like to see the total deaths for each NYC borough. Since the five NY boroughs are counties, in CDC Wonder I selected data for New York State, at the county level. I found that the total number of traffic-accident deaths in NYS in 2010 (according to the criteria I selected) was 1,242.

Note: Finding Recent Statistics/Data

It's not always easy to find data for the past year, or even the year preceding that. Data takes time to gather, clean up, and make public, and often you may find that the most recently available statistics are for 2-5 years ago.

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About Starr Hoffman

Starr Hoffman is the Journalism and Digital Resources Librarian at Columbia University. Her primary activities include reference, instruction, support for data-intensive research, collection development, and social media outreach. Starr has a PhD in Higher Education, a MS in Library Science, and a MA in Art History. She is addicted to lifelong learning, coffee, travel, museums, scifi of questionable taste, and interesting shoes. Starr’s publications, experience, and blog can be found on her ePortfolio: http://geekyartistlibrarian.wordpress.com/