Data Collection

Urban Institute researchers take advantage of dozens of existing quantitative data sets to study the world. These data come from the many federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as from dozens of private and proprietary sources.

But for many research questions, the proper data do not exist, and Urban researchers must undertake their own data collection. Though surveys are a primary method for generating new data, Urban researchers have also employed a range of creative data-generating methods.

Qualitative data collection

Qualitative research can stand alone or complement quantitative research. Qualitative data collection involves observing or directly interacting with people, and systematically gathering and organizing specific information pertinent to the research question at hand.

Qualitative methods can be instrumental in getting nuanced answers to questions of what, why, and how. For example, if you were evaluating the development of a new program, qualitative methods could help you answer the following questions: how did an organization design a new program? Why did it make the decisions it did? What challenges did the organization face, and how did it overcome them? Alternatively, you could be interested in understanding the experiences of a group of people around a particular issue, such as how young people deal with hunger issues.

As with quantitative data collection, issues such as sampling and consistency often determine the respondent group or groups who are the object of data collection. For questions that require representative or generalizable data, identifying and reaching a full sample can be an expensive task.

Because of this, qualitative methods sometimes use other sampling strategies, such as purposive, quota, and snowball sampling. While these samples are not representative, they aim to identify those who will know about and speak to the research question(s). Snowball sampling, which builds a sample through referrals from other respondents, can also be particularly helpful in identifying and recruiting members of “hidden populations”—for example, homeless youth—who are not easily accessible through other sampling strategies.

Qualitative data collection methods

Qualitative methods include focus groups, interviews, and observation. The appropriate qualitative method depends on a study’s research questions and considerations such as interest in collective versus individual experiences; the sensitivity of the topics, and the time available (Nightingale and Rossman 2010). Researchers must also consider the level of vulnerability of the human subjects and the project’s resources and budget.


Nightingale, Demetra Smith, and Shelli B. Rossman. 2010. “Collecting Data in the Field.” In Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation, 3rd ed., edited by Joseph S. Wholey, Harry P. Hatry, and Kathryn E. Newcomer, 321–46. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.