There comes a time in every thinking person’s life when he or she realizes that unrestrained generalizations, educated guesses, and hand-waving observations just don’t ring with the same sweet authority as real, well-supported, factual arguments. Whether you’re working on a thesis, putting together a company report, or trying to end a flame-war you started on the forums, solid research skills are about as indispensable to one’s intellectual prowess as the plastic toothpick in a Swiss-army knife is to a pulled-pork junkie.
I should say now before going any further that the greatest asset in one’s toolbox is a sharp, inquisitive mind. Learning how to skim through articles, interrogate texts with the wit and determination of an octopus, and dig through bibliographies for oft-cited references takes practice. But in time it can make the difference between professional and amateur. On the other hand, knowing where to start can be more than half the battle. Here’s my short list of useful research tools on the web.
This is a new one to me, as it will be to a lot of you, but nonetheless it’s one of the most useful tools for visualizing statistics I’ve seen in a long time. Basically, PolicyMap took a bunch of public statistics (population density, average household income, demographics, overweight population, economic hotzones, etc.) and created color-coded overlays for interactive maps (similar to the Googlemaps interface). It’s so good I should have thought of it.
Say you want to know what the obesity levels look like around Bowling Green, Kentucky. Type in the zip code, select the statistic and in less time than it takes to eat a Twinkie, you can see an accurate geographic representation of how many people need to stop eating Twinkies. Now zoom out and see just how the rest of the U.S. stacks up by comparison. Warning: you may feel the sudden compulsion to renew your gym membership. The data sets are incredibly comprehensive (want to know how many choreographers there are in Temecula, CA?) and you can see convenient graphs and tables and even search by congressional districts, counties or school zones. Anyone in public policy, political science, market research or analysis will fill find this tool insanely useful. And those looking for a new home, trying to start a small business, or doing some well researched regional trash-talking will find it equally beneficial.
Click here to read this article and the rest of the list by Alexander Bandazian in Loudbus Magazine on January 25th, 2010.