Data sources in needs assessments

Content type
Practice guide

August 2021


Kerry Haynes

About this resource

This resource is intended as a guide for those who are planning a needs assessment and want to identify and assess possible data sources. It provides an overview of the different types of data that can be used and issues to consider when assessing the quality of secondary data.

Choosing data collection methods

The type of data you collect and the methods you use will be influenced by the purpose of the needs assessment and the research skills available to you to collect and analyse the data. Start by setting out the questions that you would like the needs assessment to answer, then determine the data needed to answer those questions.

Needs assessments can address a range of questions, for example:

  • What are the most common needs in this community?
  • What are the needs affecting a particular segment of the community?
  • What can be done to address a particular need?
  • Who is most affected by this need?
  • How does this need affect people?
  • What has been done in other communities to address this need?

When planning data collection identify what is already known about community need. For example, informal discussions with other service providers or program participants may have indicated demand for a program to address a particular issue. Before conducting your own research, it can be helpful to consult the research literature to improve your understanding of the issue and how it has been addressed in other settings.

Ideally, multiple sources of data should be used to inform decisions about community need. This allows you to gain multiple perspectives on a problem and check the consistency of findings gained from one data source against another. In social science research this is called 'triangulation'.

Data can be classified as primary, that is data that you collect directly from original sources, or secondary, which is data that has been collected or compiled by someone else.

Primary data

Primary data can be collected from different sources; for example, from people living in your community who could potentially participate in a program or from practitioners who work with people in your community. If you are planning to collect primary data from people in your community you need to consider the ethical implications. This is important to reduce the risk of harm to those who participate in the needs assessment.

Consulting directly with the community

Consulting directly with community members can help you identify the range of a community's needs. If a particular area of need has already been identified, primary data could be collected from the community to determine how widespread an issue it is, who it affects or how.

Primary data can be collected using quantitative or qualitative research methods. Quantitative data are often collected through surveys and can be useful in understanding the scale of a problem; for example, the number of  people who are experiencing a particular need. Qualitative data can be collected through focus groups or interviews with community members to provide a more detailed understanding of their needs.

Regardless of whether quantitative or qualitative data are collected, it is important to obtain the views of a diverse group of people, not just those who are currently attending programs run by your organisation or service. This ensures that people who could potentially benefit but have not yet been reached by your organisation have an opportunity to contribute their views.

There are many advantages to collecting primary data directly from community members. It can:

  • enable direct consultation with those who may be interested in attending a program
  • promote interest in your organisation
  • reach many people (especially if surveys are used)
  • reach a diverse audience if the consultation tools (such as surveys or focus groups) are offered in different languages.

Collecting primary data can also have some disadvantages. It can be time-consuming and requires research skills to write and conduct surveys, run focus groups and interviews, and analyse the data.

Using your networks to reach community members

Professionals in your local networks may be able to assist you to collect data from the community. For example, if your target group is parents of young children, you could reach a broad sample by arranging for surveys to be distributed through local government, maternal and child health clinics, social media, or clubs and other associations attended by parents in your area. Focus group participants could also be recruited through these avenues, or you may be able to arrange to attend existing groups to run focus groups.

Using your networks is a relatively efficient way of reaching your target group. However, the limitation of this approach is that you are only consulting with people who are already attending services that you are aware of. This means you may be missing others who could potentially benefit from your service.

Consulting with others who have contact with community members

Service providers

Consider who might be able to provide insight into the needs of your community. For example, if young parents are your program's target group, then service providers, such as maternal and child health nurses or child care workers, may be able to provide insight into parents' needs. Tapping into existing groups or networks of service providers to obtain their views of their clients' needs can be helpful. Alternatively, a group of providers with an interest in the types of programs run by your organisation could be brought together to give ongoing advice on program development.

The advantage of consulting with other practitioners about their perceptions of community need is that it could save time and consider the views of large numbers of people. However, you would also need to be aware that this data is 'secondhand'; that is, it might be service providers' perceptions of their clients' views (rather than the views of clients themselves), and so it may be biased.

Information or advocacy organisations

Drawing on the expertise of organisations with an interest in your target group can be helpful in obtaining in-depth information about the group's needs. These organisations usually have a good understanding of the current issues affecting the group. Some also act as clearinghouses for research and data and can help you quickly identify secondary data. For example, if you are interested in the needs of young parents, the Young Pregnant and Parenting Network may be helpful.

Secondary data

Secondary data that have been collected by others can contribute to a needs assessment and can save you time. Data collected from people living in similar locations or circumstances to your target group are more likely to be relevant.

Examples of secondary data sources that could be used in needs assessments are provided in Table 1.

Data sourceAuthor/SourceSmallest geographical area coveredMain topics covered
National datasets   
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Community ProfilesABSPostal area, suburb, local government area (LGA)Social, economic and demographic characteristics
ABS Table BuilderABSPostal area, suburb, LGASocial, economic and demographic characteristics
ABS Socio-economic indexes by LGAABSPostal area, suburb, LGASocio-economic advantage and disadvantage
.id community demographics.idLGA (data not available for all LGAs)Population, age, ethnicity, employment, income, disadvantage, family structure, housing
Dropping Off the EdgeJesuit Social Services & Catholic Social Services AustraliaPostcode, suburbDisadvantage
Social Health Atlases of AustraliaTorrens UniversityLGAHealth, demographics, disadvantage, housing
Primary Health Network (PHN) Area ProfilesCommonwealth Dept. of HealthPHN regionHealth and demographics. Detailed information can be found on individual PHN websites
Australian Early Development CensusAustralian GovernmentLGAIndicators of early childhood development
Mothers, Babies and Children report  
Supplementary table - Births
Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and MorbidityLGA (Tables 62-65)Maternal, perinatal, paediatric mortality and morbidity, and birth outcomes
Data tables for Australia's mothers and babiesAustralian Institute of Health and WelfareStatistical Area Level 3, PHNPregnancy, childbirth and babies
Settlement reportsDept. of Home AffairsLGADemographics of people granted permanent or provisional visas
Australian open government dataFederal, state and local government agencies A range of topics, including crime, domestic violence and school attendance
Australian Government Data Exchange (DEX)1Dept. of Social ServicesABS Statistical Area Level 2 (SA2)Community profiles (using census data)
State datasets   
VicHealth IndicatorsVicHealthLGAHealth and wellbeing of Victorian adults
Victorian Population Health SurveyBetter Safer CareDashboard data at Dept. of Health Region and PHN levelHealth and wellbeing of Victorian adults
Victorian Child and Adolescent Monitoring System (VCAMS)Victorian Dept. of Education and TrainingPostcode for some indicatorsKey outcome indicators for children and young people
Domestic violence (NSW)NSW Police ForceLGADomestic violence incidents
School attendance (Queensland)Queensland Education Dept.SchoolSchool attendance
School attendance (South Australia)South Australian Education Dept.SchoolSchool attendance

Demographic and social data

Community profiles compiled by organisations such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) or Primary Health Networks can improve understanding of the local area and are a good starting point when examining secondary data. For example, community profiles can provide data on the number of families in the area, the main languages spoken, and levels of education and disadvantage. Comparing an issue in your area with the state/territory average might be helpful in determining the relative importance of that issue.

As well as providing community profiles for specific areas, the ABS has a Table Builder tool that you can use to construct tables with census data. This allows for a more detailed examination of the characteristics of specific groups of people within an area. For example, the demographics of those who were born in a particular country or are in a particular age group.

Some organisations have compiled location-based data on specific topics, such as the Dropping Off the Edge report on disadvantage2 or the Australian Early Development Census on child development. Others have compiled a number of datasets from different sources; for example, the Social Health Atlas of Australia and

Professional networks or local organisations can also be sources of secondary data that is relevant to your target group or location. For example, some local governments periodically survey residents to identify community need.

Data from research and evaluation studies

Reports from research and evaluation studies are another useful source of secondary data or evidence. These can include needs assessments conducted by other organisations or evaluations that have identified gaps in service delivery for people similar to those in your target group. These types of studies are probably most useful if a specific need has already been identified in your community and you want more information about it. Reviews that have collated data from several research studies may be particularly helpful.

Research or evaluation studies can be found through search engines such as Google Scholar or PubMed. The Australian Institute of Family Studies lists publications on topics relevant to families and children on its website.

The main advantages of using secondary data, in comparison to collecting data yourself, are that it saves time and can potentially present the views of large numbers of people (especially if review articles or population surveys are used). It may also have been collected by people with expertise or knowledge that you or your organisation do not have. However, it may not always be possible to find or access secondary data that is relevant to your target group or location. Another potential disadvantage is the secondary data may be out of date.

Considerations when using secondary data

It is important to evaluate the secondary data before you use it to inform your needs assessment. Consider the following questions when making judgements about data quality.

Who collected the data?

Check the credentials of the data source. Data from professional organisations or government agencies are usually reliable. They often provide explanatory notes for any discrepancies or collection issues, such as small samples, that may affect the quality of the data.

What was the purpose of the data collection?

Consider whether the author may have had a biased reason to publish the data. For example, commercial businesses may publish information that could favour them in some way or represent their own interests.

When was the data collected?

Check the date that the data was collected to make sure it is the most current information available.

How was the data collected?

Check the methodology, for example:

  • If a survey was used, how well was it designed?
  • What was the sample size?
  • Is the sample representative of the population that you are interested in?

Is the data a good measure for what you're trying to find out?

Sometimes data on a particular issue is hard to measure. For example, collecting data on family violence is difficult - people may have different definitions of what constitutes family violence or may be reluctant to report their experiences. Statistics that report on family violence are often from police reports, so they are not necessarily capturing the actual rates of family violence in an area but rather the number of reports that have been made to police about family violence. Population surveys can also be a source of data about rates of family violence but can also have limitations, such as poor response rates or respondents being reluctant to disclose their experiences. These data sources may make useful contributions to needs assessments but it is good to be aware of any limitations.

Is the data consistent with data from other sources?

Can any inconsistencies be explained by differences in data collection methodology?


This article provides guidance on the types of data that can be used in needs assessments. Primary data are likely to be especially useful for smaller programs or services in specific areas because the data are collected directly from community members. However, research skills are required for collection and analysis. Using secondary data can save time, and provide comparisons with other areas, but it may not always be relevant to your community and the quality of the data will need to be considered. Your choice of data source, collection methods and the order of data collection is likely to be influenced by how much is already known about the needs within your community, and the resources and skills available for the task.

1 Only services funded by the Department of Social Services under the Family and Children Activity partnership approach can access community profile reports from DEX.

2 A fifth edition of Dropping Off the Edge will be published in 2021


This resource was authored by Kerry Haynes, Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

This document has been produced as part of AIFS Evidence and Evaluation Support funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Social Services.

Featured image: GettyImages/serg3d