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Research Without a Roadmap

Although my background is in government data, I’m often asked to do research in very disparate fields. Sometimes these requests are so different from my usual research topics, that I find myself wondering just how I’m going to research this subject at all. A few days ago, I was asked to look for historical data about ocean wave heights off the coast of Brazil. This is certainly not an area I thought I would every look into!

The subject presented several challenges. First, I know nothing about the subject. The closest to getting an oceanography education was seeing Jaws poorly edited for basic cable. This was a subject I was walking into with total ignorance. How do you research something not only you have never researched before, but you have no real idea where to start?

Here are a few steps to take to research in total darkness…

1. Phone a Friend – If you get lucky, the area that needs to be researched will be familiar to someone in your professional or personal network. If you are an expert in economics but know nothing about the music industry, it may be useful to call your friend the music producer. In the case of the ocean wave data, I had no such connection.

2. Start with What You Know – Start from a list of things you do know (not think you know but KNOW) about the subject. I know that this sort of data is kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). I also know that this data comes from stations on land as well as buoys positioned at sea. So, for my inquiry, I looked for buoy data on the NOAA website.

3. Use Government and Academic Data – Starting with data from a government or academic source is often best. Not only is the data reliable as possible, but its usually free and available online. This is one of the reasons I can conduct such research instead of having to call an Oceanographer or drive to a NOAA facility. Beware that this data can often be listed in acronyms and in file formats you are unfamiliar with. Look for documents that define acronyms and how data is calculated.

4. Discover the Network – Information is like the flu, it wont stay in one place for long. Often information is shared and spread across a collection of stakeholders and interested organizations. Understanding who has data on a subject and who created the original data can often lead you to far greater subject insight. You learn about the subject area as well as the larger community of experts. I discovered in NOAA research that buoy data is maintained by a web of international organizations, government agencies, oil & gas companies, and the occasional university. The nearest buoy to the location I was researching was operated by an international called The Global Tropical Moored Buoy Array Program. Once I know the owner of the original data, I can visit their databases and website.

5. Handle Inevitable Pitfalls – The buoy in question did not track wave height data. Instead, it was primarily concerned with air and sea temperatures, wind and wave direction, and pressure measurements. This is a major setback as the research up to this point had taken several hours and resulted in no new information. Obstacles of this kind are inevitable, especially in an area you know little about. My advice in these situations is to go broad. Do a new general search for data. Google Scholar was my next idea for this research.

6. Land on Your Feet – Sure enough, a team of Brazilian scholars published a paper in the Brazilian Journal of Oceanography. From the introduction it was clear that my inability to find the data would not be surprising to an expert. The authors noted that wave data of this kind was sparse at best for Brazil and so their paper was an attempt to get some data for the area. I had found some of the needed data, but not all. I was able to provide a partial answer. The research from this study only provided wave data for a single year. I was asked to find the highest potential wave in the area ever recorded. These are the problems faced by professional research and analysis experts: sometimes the answer is, “this data doesn’t exist.” In a world filled to the brim with data and near unlimited ability to find knowledge through the internet, this answer is unsatisfying and often hard to believe.

Doing research on new areas is useful for the researcher for several reasons. First, you expand your own horizons and areas of knowledge. I had no idea about the area of wave calculations and buoy placement globally. Now I know how these things are calculated, the likelihood of answers in this subject, and where to get data the next time.

Second, it’s a challenge to the researcher. It’s like solving a crime that hasn’t been committed before. The methods are entirely new and the path to discovering the answer is unclear. In cases of research in total darkness, go back to basics. List what you know, find reliable sources, and when you find an answer, be sure to confirm (either with documentation or by and expert) that this information is good. Like a good journalist, researchers must chase down leads.

Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels


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