OverviewTeaching: 15 min
Exercises: 3 minQuestions
What are basic principles for using spreadsheets for good data organization?Objectives
Understand how to organize data so computers can make the best use of the data
Things You’ll Need To Complete This Tutorial
To work through this tutorial you will need access to a spreadsheet program. Many computers come with a pre-installed spreadsheet program like Excel or Numbers. If you do not have a spreadsheet program, install one using the instructions in the link below.
Good data organization is the foundation of your research project. Most researchers have data or do data entry in spreadsheets. Spreadsheet programs are very useful graphical interfaces for designing data tables and handling very basic data quality control functions.
In this lesson, we’re going to talk about:
- Good data entry practices - formatting data tables in spreadsheets
- How to avoid common formatting mistakes
- Recognising and reformatting dates in spreadsheets
- Basic quality control and data manipulation in spreadsheets
- Exporting data from spreadsheets
Many spreadsheet programs are available. We will use Microsoft Excel in our examples. Although it is not open source software it is very widely available and used.
Free spreadsheet programs such as LibreOffice are available. The functionality of these may differ from Excel, but in general they can be used to perform similar tasks.
What are spreadsheets good for?
One of the earliest uses for spreadsheets was for accounting worksheets, and it continues to be true that spreadsheets are particularly useful for finance. In general, spreadsheets have information - in either numerical or string form - in a tabular format. The sheet is composed of a grid of cells, generally with either data or formulas in the cells (although programs like Excel, for example, can also create visualizations). Formulas refer to existing values in other cells to compute new values. Formulas say how to mechanically compute new values from existing values.
Common Challenges with Spreadsheets
Spreadsheets are good for data entry, but in reality we tend to use spreadsheet programs for much more than data entry. We use them to create data tables for publications, to generate summary statistics, and make figures. Laying out spreadsheets in this way often adds some difficulty when we want to take our data from the spreadsheet and use it in another program. Additional white space, merged cells, colour and grids may aid readability but are not easily handled by other programs that take our spreadsheet as an input to further analysis.
Generating statistics and figures in spreadsheets, should be done with caution. The graphical, drag-and-drop nature of spreadsheet programs means that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate your steps (much less retrace anyone else’s). This is particularly true if your stats or figures require complex calculations. Furthermore, when performing calculations in a spreadsheet, it’s easy to accidentally apply a slightly different formula to multiple adjacent cells. This often makes it difficult to demonstrate data quality and consistency in our analysis.
Even when we are aware of some of the limitations that data in spreadsheets presents, often we have inherited spreadsheets from another colleague or data provider. In these situations we cannot exercise any control in its construction or entry of the data within it. Nevertheless it is important to be aware of the limitations these data may present, and know how to assess if any problems are present and how to overcome them.
What this lesson will not teach you
- How to do statistics in a spreadsheet
- How to do plotting in a spreadsheet
- How to write code in spreadsheet programs
If you’re looking to do this, a good reference is Head First Excel, published by O’Reilly
Have you seen a colleague do something that made you think they were a spreadsheet wizard? What was it?
Using Spreadsheets for Data Entry and Cleaning
There are circumstances where you might want to use a spreadsheet program to produce “quick and dirty” calculations or figures, and some of these features can be used in data cleaning, prior to importation into a statistical analysis program. We will show you how to use some features of spreadsheet programs to check your data quality along the way and produce preliminary summary statistics.
In this lesson, we will assume that you are most likely using Excel as your primary spreadsheet program - there are other programs with similar functionality but Excel seems to be the most commonly used.
In this lesson we’re going to talk about:
- Formatting data tables in spreadsheets
- Formatting problems
- Dates as data
- Quality control
- Exporting data
Spreadsheets serve an important function in most work & research environments.
Spreadsheets work best for certain tasks, and need to be formatted in a specific way to serve that function.