The data for data products can come from a wide array of sources. Traditionally, datasets were compiled through primary research, usually via questionnaires or by phone. There is alsosecondary research, where staff gathers data using online sources. There are also public domain databases that can be leveraged. We have also seen a rise in technologically-driven data gathering, such as web harvesting. And a growing number of data publishers license third-party data to augment their data gathering. Almost anything goes these days, and the savviest data publishers are mixing and matching their collection techniques for maximum effectiveness. (a topic that will be addressed at the Business Information and Media Summit in November. )

This brings me to a question I have been asked more than a few times: can survey data be turned into a data product? When I talk about surveys, I mean the types of surveys most of us do routinely: you ask, say, 20,000 restaurant owners to answer questions about their businesses and the market generally, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get 1,000 responses. My take? While a survey does in fact generate data, I don’t think a survey automatically qualifies as a commercial data product. The reason is subtle, but important.

Much of the value of a data product is in its granularity and specificity. Typically, a data product focuses on organizations, individuals or products and attempts to collect as much detail as possible on each unit of coverage, as comprehensively as possible. Most surveys, by contrast, are anonymous by nature and hit-and-miss in coverage. Using our earlier example, a survey of restaurants might well be useful and valuable if it didn’t get any response from Taco Bell operators. A restaurant database without any listings of Taco Bell locations would have no credibility.  Since most surveys promise anonymity to increase survey participation rates, only aggregate reporting is possible. From my perspective, surveys of this type are useless as data products.

But not all surveys are the same. Some surveys ask respondents to list the vendors they use, or which of a specified set of companies they like the most and the least. Surveys where you ask the anonymous respondent to list or opine on specific companies or products actually can yield a very compelling type of commercial data product. That’s because the companies or products that come out of the survey effort are not anonymous. If the owner of the Blue Duck restaurant tells you that she likes National Restaurant Supply, you’re developing lots of valuable data about National Restaurant Supply that you can publish, even while keeping Blue Duck restaurant anonymous. Your survey data can report on attitudes or adoption or market share of specific products or firms and compare them and rank and rate them. That’s very valuable because the data are highly proprietary, difficult to collect and actionable.

My bottom line on surveys is that “traditional format” surveys with anonymous submissions and aggregate reporting are truly surveys, not data products. But if your survey asks respondents to tell you how much they use or like specific companies or products – you’ve got yourself the makings of a data product!