The Central Penn Business Journal, a Harrisburg, Pa. publication, conducts a quarterly survey of businesspeople in the area, gathering their thoughts on the state of the economy. Then, they send the results to economists who analyze their opinions.
They use the same basic data tool that my newspaper uses, a tool that dozens of business journals across the country use. But most of us just collect facts--revenues, names, e-mail addresses. This was a brilliant use by Central Penn of a customizable survey format to collect the nuances of public opinion, and create economic indicators out of that.
Data services is, I think, a fairly new field, and the other companies in my area who do it, Umbria and Collective Intellect use complicated math to monitor blogs and other new media, and sell public opinion on trends for a high price.
Our surveying format has nothing to do with math. But it makes me realize that with a little effort, you can also collect public opinion and turn it into statistics.