Posts Tagged ‘census tract’

The New NYC Census Factfinder

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

As I’m updating my presentations and handouts for the new academic year, I’m taking two new census resources for a test drive. I’ll talk about the first resource in this post.

The NYC Department of City Planning has been collating census data and publishing it for the City for quite some time. They’ve created neighborhood tabulation areas (NTAs) by aggregating census tracts, so that they could publish more reliable ACS data for small areas (since the margins of error for census tracts can be quite large) and so that New Yorkers have data for neighborhood-like areas that they would recognize. The City also publishes PUMA-level data that’s associated with the City’s Community Districts, as well as borough and city-level data. All of this information is available in a large series of Excel spreadsheets or PDFs in the form of comparison tables for each dataset.

The Department of Planning also created the NYC Census Factfinder, a web-mapping interface that let’s users explore census tract and NTA level data profiles. You could plug in an address or click on the map and get a 2010 Census profile, or a demographic change profile that showed shifts between the 2000 and 2010 Census.


It was a nice application, but they’ve just made a series of updates that make it infinitely better:

  1. They’ve added the American Community Survey data from 2009-2013, and you can view the four demographic profile tables (demographics, social, economic, and housing) for tracts and NTAs.
  2. Unlike many other sources, they do publish the margin of error for all of the ACS data, which is immensely important. Estimates that have a high margin of error (as defined by a coefficient of variation) appear in grey instead of solid black. While the actual margins are not shown by default, you can simply click the Show radio button to turn on the Reliability data.
  3. Tracts or neighborhoods can be compared to the City as a whole or to an individual borough by selecting the drop down for the column header.
  4. This is especially cool – if you’re viewing census tracts you can use the select pointer and hold down the Control key (Command key on a Mac) to select multiple tracts, and then the data tables will aggregate the tract-level data for you (so essentially you can build your own neighborhoods). What’s noteworthy here is that it also calculates the new margins of error for all of the derived estimates, AND it even calculates new medians and averages with margins of error! This is something that I’ve never seen in any other application.
  5. In addition to searching for locations by address, you can hit the search type drop down and you have a number of additional options like Intersection, Place of Interest, and even Subway Stations.


There are a few quirks:

  1. I had trouble viewing the map in Firefox – this isn’t a consistent problem but something I noticed today when I went exploring. Hopefully something temporary that will be corrected. Had no problems in IE.
  2. If you want to click to select an area on the map, you have to hit the select button first (the arrow beside the zoom slider and print button) and then click on your area to select it. Just clicking on the map without hitting select first won’t do much – it will just highlight the area and tell you it’s name. Clicking the arrow button turns it blue and allows you to select features, clicking it again turns it white and lets you identify features and pan around the map.
  3. factfinder_buttons

  4. The one bummer is that there isn’t a way to download any of the profiles – particularly the ones you custom design by selecting tracts. Hitting the Get Data button takes you out of the Factfinder and back to the page with all of the pre-compiled comparison tables. You can print the table out to a PDF for presentation purposes, but if you want a data-friendly format you’ll have to highlight and select the table on the page, copy, and paste into a spreadsheet.

These are just small quibbles that I’m sure will eventually be addressed. As is stands, with the addition of the ACS and the new features they’ve added, I’ll definitely be integrating the NYC Census Factfinder into my presentations and will be revising my NYC Neighborhood Census data handout to add it as a source. It’s unique among resources in that it provides NTA-level data in addition to tract data, has 2000 and 2010 historical change and the latest 5-year ACS (with margins of error) in one application, and allows you to build your own neighborhoods to aggregate tract data WITH new margins of error for all derived estimates. It’s well-suited for users who want basic Census demographic profiles for neighborhood-like areas in NYC.

Downloading Data for Small Census Geographies in Bulk

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

I needed to download block group level census data for a project I’m working on; there was one particular 2010 Census table that I needed for every block group in the US. I knew that the American Factfinder was out – you can only download block group data county by county (which would mean over 3,000 downloads if you want them all). I thought I’d share the alternatives I looked at; as I searched around the web I found many others who were looking for the same thing (i.e. data for the smallest census geographies covering a large area).

The Census FTP site at

This would be the first logical step, but in the end it wasn’t optimal based on my need. When you drill down through Census 2010, Summary File 1, you see a file for every state and a national file. Initially I thought – great! I’ll just grab the national file. But the national file does NOT contain the small census statistical areas – no tracts, block groups, or blocks. If you want those small areas you have to download the files for each of the states – 51 downloads. When you download the data you can also download an MS Access database, which is an empty shell with the geography and field headers, and you can import each of the text file data tables (there a lot of them for 2010 SF1) into the db and match them to the headers during import (the instructions that were included for doing this were pretty good). This is great if you need every variable in every table for every geography, but I was only interested in one table for one geography. I could just import the one text file with my table, but then I’d have to do this import process 51 times. The alternative is to use some Python to get that one text file for every state into one big file and then do the import once, but I opted for a different route.

The NHGIS at

I always recommend this resource to anyone who’s looking for historical census data or boundary files, but it’s also good if you want current data for these small areas. I was able to use their query window to widdle down the selection by dataset (2010 SF1), geography (block groups), and topic (Hispanic origin and race in my case), then I was able to choose the table I needed. On the last screen before download I was able to check a box to include all 50 states plus DC and PR in one file. I had to wait a couple minutes for the request to process, then downloaded the file as a CSV and loaded it into my database. This was the best solution for my circumstances by far – one table for all block groups in the country. If you had to download a lot (or all) of the tables or variables for every block group or block it may take quite awhile, and plugging through all of those menus to select everything would be tedious – if that’s your situation it may be easier to grab everything using the Census FTP.


UExplore / Dexter at

The Missouri Census Data Center’s UExplore / Dexter tool lets you choose a dataset and takes you to a window that resembles a file system, with a ton of files in it. The MCDC takes their extracts directly from the Census, so they’re structured in a similar way to the FTP site as state-based files. They begin with the state prefix and have a name that indicates geography – there are files for block groups, blocks, and one for everything else. There are national files (which don’t contain small census areas) that begin with ‘us’. The difference here is – when you click on a file, it launches a query window that let’s you customize the extract. The interface may look daunting at first, but it’s worth exploring (and there’s a tutorial to help guide you). You can choose from several output formats, specific variables or tables (if you don’t want them all), and there are a bunch of handy options that you can specify like aggregation or percent totals. In addition to the complete datasets, they’ve also created ‘Standard Extracts’ that have the most common variables, if you want just a core subset. While the NHGIS was the best choice for my specific need, the customization abilities in Dexter may fit your needs – and the state-level block group and block data is conveniently broken out from the other files.


There are a few others tools – I’ll give an honorable mention to the Summary File Retrieval tool, which is an Excel plugin that lets you tap directly into the American Community Survey from a spreadsheet. So if you wanted tracts or block groups for a wide area for but a small number of variables (I think 20 is the limit) that could be a winner, provided you’re using Excel 2007 or later and are just looking at the ACS. No dice in my case, as I needed Decennial Census data and use OpenOffice at home.

NYC Geodatabase in Spatialite

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

I spent much of the fall semester and winter interim compiling and creating the NYC geodatabase (nyc_gdb), a desktop geodatabase resource for doing basic mapping and analysis at a neighborhood level – PUMAs, ZIP Codes / ZCTAs, and census tracts. There were several motivations for doing this. First and foremost, as someone who is constantly introducing new people to GIS it’s a pain sending people to a half dozen different websites to download shapefiles and process basic features and data before actually doing a project. By creating this resource I hoped to lower the hurdles a bit for newcomers; eventually they still need to learn about the original sources and data processing, but this gives them a chance to experiment and see the possibilities of GIS before getting into nitty gritty details.

Second, for people who are already familiar with GIS and who have various projects to work on (like me) this saves a lot of duplicated effort, as the db provides a foundation to build on and saves the trouble of starting from scratch each time.

Third, it gave me something new to learn and will allow me to build a second part to my open source GIS workshops. I finally sat down and hammered away with Spatialite (went through the Spatialite Cookbook from start to finish) and learned spatial SQL, so I could offer a resource that’s open source and will compliment my QGIS workshop. I was familiar with the Access personal geodatabases in ArcGIS, but for the most part these serve as simple containers. With the ability to run all the spatial SQL operations, Spatialite expands QGIS functionality, which was something I was really looking for.

My original hope was to create a server-based PostGIS database, but at this point I’m not set up to do that on my campus. I figured Spatialite was a good alternative – the basic operations and spatial SQL commands are relatively the same, and I figured I could eventually scale up to PostGIS when the time comes.

I also created an identical, MS Access version of the database for ArcGIS users. Once I got my features in Spatialite I exported them all out as shapefiles and imported them all via ArcCatalog – not too arduous as I don’t have a ton of features. I used the SQLite ODBC driver to import all of my data tables from SQLite into Access – that went flawlessly and was a real time saver; it just took a little bit of time to figure out how to set up (but this blog post helped).

The databases are focused on NYC features and resources, since that’s what my user base is primarily interested in. I purposefully used the Census TIGER files as the base, so that if people wanted to expand the features to the broader region they easily could. I spent a good deal of time creating generalized layers, so that users would have the primary water / coastline and large parks and wildlife areas as reference features for thematic maps, without having every single pond and patch of grass to clutter things up. I took several features (schools, subway stations, etc) from the City and the MTA that were stored in tables and converted them to point features so they’re readily useable.

Given that focus, it’s primarily of interest to NYC folks, but I figured it may be useful for others who wish to experiment with Spatialite. I assumed that most people who would be interested in the database would not be familiar with this format, so I wrote a tutorial that covers the database and it’s features, how to add and map data in QGIS, how to work with the data and do SQL / spatial SQL in the Spatialite GUI, and how to map data in ArcGIS using the Access Geodb. It’s Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike, so feel free to give it a try.

I spent a good amount of time building a process rather than just a product, so I’ll be able to update the db twice a year, as city features (schools, libraries, hospitals, transit) change and new census data (American Community Survey, ZIP Business Patterns) is released. Many of the Census features, as well as the 2010 Census data, will be static until 2020.

Giving GRASS GIS a Try

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

I’ve been taking the plunge in learning GRASS GIS this summer, as I’ve been working at home (and thus don’t have access to ArcGIS) on a larger and more long-term project (and thus don’t want to mess around with shapefiles and csv tables). I liked the idea of working with GRASS vectors, as everything is contained in one folder and all my attributes are stored rather neatly in a SQLite database.

I started out using QGIS to create my mapset and to connect it to my SQLite db which I had created and loaded with some census data. Then I thought, why not give the GRASS interface a try? I started using the newer Python-wx GUI and as I’m trying different things, I bounce back and forth between using the GUI for launching commands and the command line for typing them in – all the while I have Open Source GIS A GRASS GIS Approach at my side and the online manual a click away . So far, so good.

I loaded and cleaned a shapefile with the GRASS GUI (the GUI launches,, abd v.clean) and it’s attributes were loaded into the SQLite database I had set (using db.connect – need to do this otherwise a DBF is created by default for storing attributes). Then I had an age-old task to perform – the US Census FIPS / ANSI codes where stored in separate fields, and in order to join them to my attribute tables I had to concatenate them. I also needed to append some zeros to census tract IDs that lacked them – FIPS codes for states are two digits long, counties are three digits, and tracts are between four and six digits, but to standardize them four digit tracts should have two zeros appended.

Added the new JOIN_ID column using v.db.addcol, then did the following using db.execute:

UPDATE tracts_us99_nad83


UPDATE tracts_us99_nad83
WHERE length(JOIN_ID)=9

So this:

01 077 0113
01 077 0114
01 077 011502
01 077 011602

Becomes this:


db.execute GRASS GUI

I could have done this a few different ways from within GRASS: instead of the separate v.db.addcol command I could have written a SQL statement in db.execute to alter the table and add a column. Or, instead of db.execute I could have used the v.db.update command.

My plan is to use GRASS for geoprocessing and analysis (will be doing some buffering, geographic selection, and basic spatial stats), and QGIS for displaying and creating final maps. I just used to transform an attribute table with coordinates in my db to a point vector. But now I’m realizing that in order to draw buffers, I’ll need a projected coordinate system that uses meters or feet, as inputting degrees for a buffer distance (for points throughout the US) isn’t going to work too well. I’m also having trouble figuring out how to link my attribute data to my vectors – I can easily use v.db.join to fuse the two together, but there is a way to link them more loosely using the CAT ID number for each vector, but I’m getting stuck. We’ll see how it goes.

Some final notes – since I’m working with large datasets (every census tract in the US) and GRASS uses a topological data model where common node and boundaries between polygons are shared, geoprocessing can take awhile. I’ve gotten in the habit of testing things out on a small subset of my vectors, and once I get it right I run the process on the total set.

Lastly, there are times where I read about commands in the manual and for the life of me I can’t find them in the GUI – for example, finding a menu to delete (i.e. permanently remove) layers. But if you type the command without any of its parameters in the command line (in this case, g.remove) it will launch the right window in the GUI.

GRASS GIS Interface

Mapping Hard to Count Areas for Census 2010

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about neighborhoods in New York that typically get under-counted in the Census. These include areas with high immigrant populations as well as places that have had new construction since the last census, as the buildings haven’t been added to the Census Bureau’s master address file.

What the article didn’t mention is that CUNY’s Center for Urban Research has created a great online ap called the Census 2010 Hard to Count mapping site. The site is built on the Census Bureau’s Tract Level Planning Database, which identified twelve population and housing variables, such as language isolation, recent movers, poverty, and crowded housing, that were associated with low mail response in the 2000 Census. This tool was designed to help Census reps, local government officials, and community activists identify traditionally under-counted areas to insure a more complete count this time around.

The database is national in scope, and you can easily map tracts for a particular state, county, city, metro area, or tribal area, and you can search for an area using an individual address. The map is built on a Google Maps interface, and zooming in will change the units mapped from larger units (states, counties, etc) to tracts. You can easily select one of the twelve variables color-coded in the menu to the left of the map, or a Hard to Count index of all the variables.

NYCRDC 2nd Annual Workshop

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

I attended the first of the three workshops held at Baruch College as part of the New York Census Research Data Center’s 2nd Annual Workshop series. The NYCRDC provides confidential census microdata to researchers at secure facilities at Baruch and Cornell.

This year’s theme is census geography and mapping, and there were a number of great presentations that covered census geography from the global down to the block level. My personal favorite was a presentation that illustrated the composition and evolution of census tracts – using Legos! Not the real ones mind you, but digital photos of Legos that were enhanced and tied together with Flash in a Powerpoint presentation.

I have provided a link to the 2nd Annual Workshop page before – but there it is again. Powerpoints, and perhaps video footage, of the presentations should be posted there relatively soon.

I also gave a promo to the hands-on GIS workshop that I’ll be doing as part of the second workshop of the series. Two weeks to go, and I still have a lot to do…

Copyright © 2017 Gothos. All Rights Reserved.
No computers were harmed in the 0.483 seconds it took to produce this page.

Designed/Developed by Lloyd Armbrust & hot, fresh, coffee.