Review of The Census Reporter

Picking up where I left off from my previous post (gee – welcome to 2016!) I thought I’d give a brief review of another census resource, The Census Reporter at http://censusreporter.org/.

The Census Reporter was created to make it easier for journalists to write stories using census data. To that end, they’ve created a really slick and easy to use web site that makes the data accessible and fun to explore. From the homepage you have three ways of diving into the data: you can pull up a profile by typing in the name of a place, you can enter an address and explore places that contain that address, or you can explore tables by topic.

Census Reporter Homepage

First, the place-based approach. You can type in a named place, like a state, county, or a census place (incorporated cities and towns, or census designated places) to get started. This will give you a selection of data from the most recent release of the American Community Survey. For larger areas where the data is available, it gives you 1-year ACS data by default; otherwise you get the latest 5-year data.

You’re presented with a map of the location at the top, and a series of attractive looking graphs and charts sorted by the demographic profile table source – social, economic, housing, and demographic. If you hover over a data point in a table it gives you some geographic context by comparing this place’s value with that of larger places where it’s contained. For example, if I search for Philadelphia I can hover over the chart to get the value for the Philly metro area and the State of Pennsylvania. I can click a link below each chart to open the full table, which includes both estimates and margins of error. There are small links for viewing the table by itself on a separate page (which also gives you the ability to download it) and for embedding the chart in a website.

Census Reporter Chart and Table

Viewing the table gives you additional options, like adding additional places for comparison, or subdividing the place into smaller areas for comparison. So if I’m looking at Philadelphia, I can break it down into tracts, block groups, or ZIP Codes. From there I can toggle away from the table view to view a map or a distribution bar to explore that variable by individual geographies.

View Data by Sub-Areas, Distribution Bars

The place-based search is great at allowing you to drill down either by topic or by these smaller geographies. But if you wanted to access a fuller range of geographies like congressional districts or PUMAs, it seems easier to do an address-based search. Back on the homepage, selecting the address button and typing in an address brings you to a map with the address pin-pointed, and on the left you can choose any geography that encloses that address. Once you do that, you get a profile for that geography and can start doing the same sorts of operations for changing the topics or tables, or adding or subdividing geographies for comparison.

Address Search

The topic-based search lets you search just by topic and then figure out the geography piece later. Of the three types of searches this one is the toughest, given the sheer number of tables and cross-tabulations. You can click on a link for a general topic to narrow things down a bit before beginning a search.

In downloading the data you have a variety of useful options: CSV, Excel, GeoJSON, KML, and shapefiles. So in theory you can download data that’s readily mappable – in practice I wasn’t able to download a shapefile, but could grab a KML or GeoJson and was able to visualize it in QGIS. One challenge in downloading any of the files is that the column names use the identifier codes, and the actual names of the variables aren’t included in the download format you choose – they’re included in a json file. So you can use that for reference, but it can’t be readily incorporated into the table.

So – where would this resource fall within the pantheon of US Census data resources? I think it’s great for accessing and, especially, visualizing profiles (profile = lots of data for one place) from the most recent ACS releases. It’s easy to use and succeeds at making the data interesting; for that reason I certainly would incorporate it into undergraduate courses where I’m introducing data. The ability to embed the charts into websites is certainly a bonus, and they deserve a big thumbs up for incorporating the margin of error data, rather than hiding or discarding it like other resources do.

The ability to create and view comparison tables (comparison = one piece of data for many places) is good – select an area and then break it down – but not as strong as the profile options. If you want to get a profile for a non-named place like a tract, ZIP Code, or PUMA you can’t do that from the profile search. You can do an address search and back out (if you know an address for that you’re interested in) or you can drill down by topic, which lets you search by summary area in addition to named places.

For users who need to download a lot of data, or for folks who need datasets that aren’t the most recent ACS release, this resource isn’t the place to go. The focus here is on providing the data in an easy and compelling way, as is. In viewing the profiles, it’s not clear if you can choose 5-year data over 1-year data for places where both datasets are available – even for large geographic areas with high population, sometimes it’s preferable to use the 5-year data to take advantage of the smaller margins of error. I also didn’t see an option for choosing decennial census data.

In short, this resource is well-designed and definitely worth exploring. It seems clear why this would be a go-to source for journalists, but it can be for many others as well.

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