(2) Is it easy for a non-academic to get the required data?
I am not familiar with this particular academic community, but generally it is not easy for an academic to get data. The most useful resource is probably the co-operation of those who have gathered the data, and in order to get that you have to find out who they are. The inclination to be helpful varies immensely across disciplines and people within disciplines, but all you lose by trying to make contact is possible embarassment. Step 2 in the list below will give you a tag to use when introducing yourself, which may make you feel less awkward and therefore may improve co-operation.
I suggest 3 steps, in increasing cost, that are likely to help:
- 1. Get a community membership in the nearest university library. This should be cheap enough to be a no-brainer. It doesn't matter too much which university, because a lot of materials will be online through their Web catalogue, and there will be interlibrary loan. I'm not sure whether small 4-year colleges and community colleges have similar arrangements, but it's worth checking if one of those is much more convenient than a research university.
- 2. Join a professional society, and/or the special interest group of a professional society, interested in your topic. Costs vary wildly, order of magnitude $100 to $1,000 per year. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) probably have interest groups, and there are almost surely such groups within some cognitive science societies, but I am not familiar with those.
- 3. Attend a conference sponsored by a group from step 2. This is likely to cost $1,000s when you add up travel, hotel, registration. If you have the time, and get lucky on location, you can save a bunch on travel. Saving by staying far from the conference hotel is usually a mistake. The value of the conference is less in attending talks than in meeting people, and having breakfast in the same hotel with everybody else can make a big difference. The success of unsolicited introductions will vary immensely across the people you try to meet, but you lose nothing but embarassment by trying. The main thing you can do to improve success is to avoid the Charybdis & Scylla of diffident awkwardness and bluff. Let on that you're an outsider, but don't downgrade whatever insight/ability/motivation you have. You'll probably have the greatest success meeting people who are networked in, but are not famous stars. That includes grad students and postdocs. It may be nice and polite to hang out with other outsiders, but probably not productive for your mutual goals.