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Data and Statistics: Survey Data

This guide helps you get started learning about data and statistics, how to find data and statistics and how to cite them.

Survey Data Links

Links included in this guide where you can find survey data:

What are RDCs?

RDCs or Research Data Centres are part of an initiative by Statistics Canada, providing researchers with access, in a secure university setting, to microdata, from population to household surveys. RDCs are located throughout the country, so researchers do not need to travel to Ottawa to access Statistics Canada microdata. 

If the data you are looking for is only available through the RDC (because it is only available in a master file), then you will have to apply to gain access to the RDC for your research. For more information on how to apply for access, a list of what data is available in the RDC, and other information, please review RDC Program


Want to know more about tools for downloading, searching and analyzing survey data? Check out the  Finding Survey Data Workshop Exercise.

What is survey data?

Survey data is the result of a survey conducted by a government (or intergovernmental) organization, a private or not-for-project organization, or even an individual or a group of researchers in an academic institution. Survey data covers a wide range of topics, such as health, education, consumer spending, social practices, etc.

Two basic types: Cross-sectional and longitudinal

It is important to understand two major types of survey: cross-sectional and longitudinal. Cross-sectional studies take a snapshot or cross-section of information on the subjects at a single point in time.

On the other hand, longitudinal studies involve conducting several observations of the same subjects over a period of time, sometimes lasting many years.

Cross-sectional studies can be done more quickly than longitudinal studies. Also, you need to be aware that most of the data for  longitudinal surveys, such as Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging and the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, are only accessible through RDCs (Research Data Centres). For more information on RDCs, please click here.

Major forms of Canadian survey data

Where to look for Canadian survey data really depends on what form of the data you need. There are three major forms of survey data:

1. Aggregate Data: 

Aggregate data is statistical summaries of the raw, survey data. Aggregate data is produced to provide access to data that cannot be released as microdata, and to organize statistics into data tables for those who just want some basic facts or numbers resulting from the survey. For Canadian Statistics, you would go to the Statistics Canada website and its CANSIM portal for aggregate Canadian survey data.

2. Master Files

Master files are the opposite to aggregate data. For each survey conducted by an author division, a master file is constructed which contains most of the original information collected during the survey interview with the subject, as well as derived variables added to the dataset afterwards. This is the most detailed data you can get. For Canadian master files, you will have to go through the Research Data Centres or RDCs

3. Public Use Microdata Files (PUMFs)

Before each PUMF is released,Statistics Canada performs modifications to the corresponding master file to ensure that the risk of breaching confidentiality has been removed. Since the results of any analysis performed do not have to be scrutinized before they are released, the file is considered "public." For Canadian PUMFs, the easiest way to access them is through our data repositories, Abacus.

Tools to search for and analyze survey data

The two major survey data repositories, Abacus and ICPSR, provide very powerful tools, Nesstar and SDA respectively, for better experience of searching and analyzing data online without the hassle of downloading a whole, huge dataset, conducting some analysis on your computer and then finding out this dataset is not right for you! That said, with these powerful tools, you will enjoy much more flexibility, quickness and easiness in exploring survey data. 

1. Search in Abacus and Odesi

You can run a simple search in Abacus or use advanced search, in which you can specify various details, such as title and date. Further, one feature that is really convenient is to search by variable name, when you hope to dig deeper into a survey and see what is covered. However, please note that searching by variable only applies to more recent major surveys.

                                                               Advanced  Search Interface in Abacus 

Alternatively, you may try this website Odesi, a powerful survey search tool to search up to the variable level. As shown in below, the interface is nice, allowing you to create some complicated searches. Please keep in mind, however, once you figure out what survey you need, you'll have to come back to Abacus to access it.

                                                                     Search Interface of Odesi


2. Cross tabulation, analysis and compute functions in Nesstar 

To access Nesstar, just go to, where you are empowered to conduct some online analysis based on the variables you are interested in, before you go ahead to download the entire dataset.

It allows you to create a cross tabulation by picking variables for the row and the column. Please note by doing so, you will be prompted to log in with your library barcode and PIN.


Under the Analysis tab, you will be able to run regression or correlation for the variables you pick. 

If you click the Compute button, you will be able to run a few function, such as Recode

3. Search and Analyze Data using ICPSR and SDA

Please review the Help on ICPSR's website for guidance on searching, downloading and analyzing data. Additionally, ICPSR offers a variety of videos on youtube, where you will find answers to many of your questions, including how to use SDA to analyze data.

*For more detailed information and examples, check out the  Finding Survey Data Workshop Exercise Handout.