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Statistics and Data Sets in Public Policy: Overview and Definitions

Subguide to the Public Policy guide listing resources for statistics and data sets in public policy topics.

Data vs. Statistics

Thanks to Hailey Mooney of Michigan State University Library for permission to reuse her terrific content.


What is the difference between Data and Statistics?

In regular conversation, both words are often used interchangeably. In the world of libraries, academia and research there is an important distinction between data and statistics. Data is the raw information from which statistics are created. Put in the reverse, statistics provide an interpretation and summary of data.


  • Statistical tables, charts, and graphs
  • Reported numbers and percentages in an article

If you’re looking for a quick number, you want a statistic. A statistic will answer “how much” or “how many”. A statistic repeats a pre-defined observation about reality.

Statistics are the results of data analysis. It usually comes in the form of a table or chart. This is what a statistical table looks like:

Table 1206. Adult Attendance at Sports Events by Frequency: 2007

Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States



  • Datasets
  • Machine-readable data files, data files for statistical software programs

If you want to understand a phenomenon, you want data. Data can be analyzed and interpreted using statistical procedures to answer “why” or “how.” Data is used to create new information and knowledge.

Raw data is the direct result of research that was conducted as part of a study or survey. It is a primary source. It usually comes in the form of a digital data set that can be analyzed using software such as Excel, SPSS, SAS, and so on. This is what a data set looks like:

Dataset example: each cell in the spreadsheet represents an individual response to survey questions


Citing Data and Statistics

Please remember that whether you use a numeric dataset or a prepared statistical table from an existing source (e.g. Statistical Abstract of the United States) that you do need to cite the source of your information.  Depending on the citation style you're required to use for your work it could look like any of the following:

United States Census Bureau. (2000). Census 2000 summary file 3: Maryland raw data.  Retrieved 6/5/2010 from

Pew Internet and American Life Project. (2010).  Demographics of internet users.  Retrieved 6/5/2010 from

Some data sources such as ICPSR provide you with citation information (ICPSR places theirs specifically in the full bibliographic record view). 

Not sure how to cite?  Please ask Your Librarian (see the box on the right).


Thanks to Jen Darragh of Johns Hopkins for permission to adapt her excellent content.

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