Access to computerized information doesn't have to cost a lot. Government agencies, trade associations, and even your own suppliers can be inexpensive sources of vital facts and figures, says Tom Scott, a data processing and information systems consultant who specializes in the shipping and offshore service industries. "There are all kinds of agencies and companies that collect and exchange data," he says. "The trick is to find an organization that has an interest in providing you with information, and then work out an arrangement that allows you to get it in the form you need. If they're collecting or storing information, that means it's probably in a computer somewhere."

Sources of computerized government data are plentiful. The Bureau of the Census maintains a list of Telephone Contacts for Data Users, which can put you in touch with the appropriate source of specialized information. Many states also have census data centers affiliated with state planning agencies, libraries, or universities.

If you require help selecting what you need from what is available, or finding someone to write the software that will help you use a specialized data base, the Independent Computer Consultants Association will direct you to freelance data systems specialists in your area. The association can be reached at P.O. Box 27412, St. Louis, MO 63141 or by calling (314) 567-9708.

Companies that choose in-house access to a data base source can get support and assistance from local online user groups. Seventy-four of these self-help groups are listed, along with addresses and contact names, in a new directory published by the National Online Circuit. Copies are available for $10 through Rebecca Gonzalez, chairperson, IIT Research Institute, 10 W. 35th St., Chicago, IL 60616.