How to Write a Good Data Question

Our Insights Service is a Question and Answer site for data questions, to make it easier for civic-minded San Diegans to better understand our local issues. However, it can be difficult to ask a good question that our analysts can answer. Here are some tips for writing a good data question.

A good data question is specific and asks “when”, “how much,” “how many,” or “what is most”.  It should have an answer that is something that is countable, usually a number of people, a number of dollars or the number of times something happened. The easiest questions to answer are formulated with a dataset in mind, or a hunch about what data you might find. Some places to find datasets that can help you understand what you can ask and get good answers for are:

Once you have a question, it is always valuable just to type the question into Google to see what comes up. You might get you answer immediately, but even if you don’t, the related articles will help you refine the question to be more specific.

Some example questions we have on our site are:

A “why” question will likely require more sleuthing — often done by a journalist or researcher — but the answer to the “why” question will often start with “how much” data. If you have a “why” question, try to formulate a hypothesis, and then create a data question that will help you address the hypothesis. For instance:

Why does the San Diego Unified School District need to make budget cuts next year?

Hypothesis Data Question
Is it because of declining tax revenue? “What has been the District tax revenue for the last 10 years?”
Is it because of increasing costs? “What are the District’s budgets or expenses for the last 10 years?”
Is it because of increasing students? “How san the San Diego student population changed since 2008?”

If you are having a really hard time with formulating a question, go ahead and ask the best one you can think of. We can always respond with ways to improve the question before analysts get into trying to answer it.