Overview of SPSS Dimensions

SPSS recently announced the release of SPSS Dimensions 4.0, the latest incarnation of its enterprise survey and analysis suite that does everything from helping you create surveys to analyzing the data to generating reports. Before looking into the new features introduced in version 4.0, I thought it might first be interesting to explore the basic features of the system. In other words, what is SPSS Dimensions?

SPSS Dimensions isn’t so much an individual software package as much as it is a platform of several independent software packages that are able to work together in a relatively seamless fashion. Sort of like how each of the programs within Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, etc) can work independently (and be purchased independently) but also work very well together. Like Office, most of the packages that work with Dimensions are published by SPSS — although the platform has been designed to accommodate the integration of software written by 3rd party developers (and several such packages do exist).

Some of the programs that work with Dimensions include:

  • SPSS mrDialer – Automated dialing for phone surveys
  • SPSS mrInterview – Create and execute online surveys
  • SPSS mrInterview CATI – Create and execute phone surveys
  • SPSS mrPaper – Create and execute paper surveys
  • SPSS mrScan – Scan paper surveys
  • SPSS mrStudio – Manage and manipulate data
  • SPSS Desktop Reporter – Create tables from local data
  • SPSS mrTables – Interact with tables on your desktop
  • SPSS mrTranslate – Manage translations of surveys and reports
  • Techneos Entryware – Collect data using handheld devices
  • SPSS Base – Analyze data
  • Clementine – Data mining
  • SPSS Text Analysis for Surveys – text analysis & categorization

At the core of SPSS Dimensions is the Dimensions Data Model, a set of components (openly documented and supported) which allow for accessing information about questionnaires and respondent data. It also deals with keeping track of changes to the questionnaire (versioning), translating both questions and data from one format to another, and managing data stored in multiple formats and platforms.

Visual representation of the Dimensions Data Model
(from the SPSS presentation "Using the SPSS MR Data Model")

The table above describes the role of the data model well. Data can be collected from multiple sources. Instead of each collection program storing the data in its own database, it instead sends it to the Dimensions Data Model which puts it into its own special format. When another program, such as a data processing program or a data analysis program needs the data it requests it from the Dimensions Data Model using standardized request formats (that just about any program can use).

Consider a project in which you need to collect data using three different survey techniques including a phone survey, a web-based survey and a paper survey. Even though you’re going to ask the same basic questions in each survey, you are still going to have to develop three completely different questionnaires in order to compliment each of the mediums, which further means you’re going to have to program the survey three different times (perhaps four, if you consider that you may be using scanning software to read some of your paper surveys). 

Even though the question is the same, it needs to appear different
across modes and across functions (from the SPSS presentation
"Improving Government Programs with Comprehensive Data Collection")

After you’ve finished collecting the data (using three separate data collection tools, all of which store the data in their own, separate proprietary format that exports into the frustratingly simple CSV format, you’ll then have to combine all of the data into one file which you’ll then need to clean and prepare for analysis. Following analysis, you’ll export your results into yet another program.

Using the SPSS Dimensions Suite (or more specifically, software that is integrated into the Dimensions Suite) makes the process go much faster by optimizing the mechanics of designing and fielding your questionnaire and analyzing and reporting on the data.

Dimensions reduces the time it takes to conduct a complex research project
(Source: SPSS presentation "Discover it with Dimensions")

SPSS Dimensions has been developed based on the notion of "Design Once, use Many" so once you have created your initial questionnaire (either using a simple, graphic user interface found in mrInterview or the more advanced script driven interface provided by mrStudio — either package will allow you to import the text of your survey from MS Word), you can then quickly (and easily) set it up to deploy using multiple modes (paper, web, CATI, etc).

Perhaps one of the most exciting features of SPSS Dimensions is its multi mode deployment capabilities. Most surveys today require some amount of programming to deal with skipping, piping, the incorporation of outside data, and other advanced options. Ordinarily, each mode would require its own programming. SPSS Dimensions is designed so that you only need to write the script once and it will work the same in each context.

SPSS Dimensions allows you to program your survey once
and have it work on multiple platforms. (from the SPSS presentation
"Improving Government Programs with Comprehensive Data Collection")

Dimensions not only helps you design and execute your survey, it also manages security, translating the survey into multiple languages, and manages multiple versions of your survey as well.

External databases containing participant details can be added at any time, and it can be used both in the survey and during analysis. Data from outside sources can be reviewed during the survey to check for inaccuracies, and it can even be updated based on responses given in the survey.

All of the data that is collected, regardless of how it is collected, goes into one SPSS Dimensions database where it can then be analyzed and reported on. Although Dimensions is an open platform that will allow analysis to be conducted in any program (it will export data into a variety of formats for other programs to use), the suite is optimized to work with several SPSS-published programs, such as mrStudio, mrTables, SPSS for Windows and Clementine. Results can then be automatically turned into interactive web-based reports or analyzed using Excel, Word or PowerPoint. Dimensions integrates all of the major capabilities provided by SPSS’s various data analysis packages, including SPSS Base for statistical analysis; Clementine for data mining, and SPSS Text Analysis for Surveys for text analysis and categorization as well as a variety of SPSS and 3rd party data collection and reporting tools.

Reasons to Consider SPSS Dimensions

  • Powerful interviewing engine
  • Open architecture
  • Web-based user interface
  • Easy to create surveys
  • Write the survey once, use in multiple modes (phone, web, etc)
  • Write the scripting/programming once
  • Write the survey once, use in multiple modes (phone, web, etc)
  • Write the scripting/programming once
  • Easy to program (similar to VB Script)
  • Common data storage format/interface
  • Translation capabilities
  • Faster development and analysis time
  • Works with (some) third party applications
  • Scriptable (write your own scripts to work with data)
  • Integrates well with SPSS
  • Integrates well with Excel

Reasons not to use SPSS Dimensions

  • Expensive
  • Limited to Dimensions compatible tools
  • Complicated to set up and integrate with existing systems
  • Requires lots of IT support

Learn more at the SPSS web site.

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