Government Shutdown: Alternate Resources for US Census Data

As the US government shutdown continues (thanks to a handful of ideological nutcases in congress) those of us who work with and rely on government data are re-learning the lesson of why it’s important to keep copies of things. This includes having alternate sources of information floating around on the web and in the cloud, as well as the tried and true approach of downloading and saving datasets locally. There have been a number of good posts (like this succinct one) to point users to alternatives to the federal sources that many of us rely on. I’ll go into more detail here with my suggestions on where to access US Census data, based on user-level and need.

  • The Social Explorer: this web-mapping resource for depicting and accessing US Census data from 1790 to present (including the 2010 Census and the latest American Community Survey data) is intuitive and user-friendly. Many academic and public libraries subscribe to the premium edition that provides full access to all features and datasets (so check with yours to see if you have access), while a basic free version is available online. Given the current circumstances the Social Explorer team has announced that it will open the hatch and provide free access to users who request it.
  • The NHGIS (National Historic GIS): this project is managed by the Minnesota Population Center and also provides access to all US Census data from 1790 to present. While it’s a little more complex than the Social Exlorer, the NHGIS is the better option for downloading lots of data en-masse, and is the go-to place if you need access to all datasets in their entirety, including all the detail from the American Community Survey (as the Social Explorer does not include margins of error for any of the ACS estimates) or if you need access to other datasets like the County Business Patterns. Lastly – it is the alternative to the TIGER site for GIS users who need shapefiles of census geography. You have to register to use NHGIS, but it’s free. For users who need microdata (decennial census, ACS, Current Population Survey), you can visit a related MPC project to the NHGIS: IPUMS.
  • The Missouri Census Data Center (MCDC): I’ve mentioned a number of their tools in the past; they provide easy-to-access profiles from the 2010 Census and American Community Survey, as well as historical trend reports for the ACS. For intermediate users they provide extract applications for the 2010 Census and ACS for creating spreadsheets and SAS files for download, and for advanced users the Dexter tool for downloading data en-masse from 1980 to present. Unlike the other resources no registration or sign-up is required. I also recommend the MCDC’s ACS and 2010 Census profiles to web designers and web mappers; if you’ve created online resources that tapped directly into the American Factfinder via deep links (like I did), you can use the MCDC’s profiles as an alternative. The links to their profiles are persistent and use a logical syntax (as it looks like there’s no end in site to this shutdown I may make the change-over this week). Lastly, the MCDC is a great resource for technical documentation about geography and datasets.
  • State and local government: thankfully many state and local governments have taken subsets of census data of interest to people in their areas and have recompiled and republished it on the web. These past few weeks I’ve been constantly sending students to the NYC Department of City Planning’s population resources. Take a look at your state data center’s resources, as well as local county or city planning departments, transportation agencies, or economic development offices to see what they provide.

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