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atcoordinates YouTube Channel

Video Tutorials for Finding US Census Data

I have recently created an atcoordinates YouTube channel that features a series of how-to videos on finding and accessing US census data using a variety of websites and tools. I explain basic census concepts while demonstrating how to access data. At this point there are four videos:

  1. Exploring US Census Data: Basic Concepts. This is a narrated slide show where I cover the essential choices you need to make and concepts you need to understand in order to access census data, regardless of the tool or platform: data set, time period, subjects or topics, and geography. I discuss the decennial census, American Community Survey, and population estimates. This video is intended as a prerequisite for viewing the others, so I don’t have to explain the same concepts each time and can focus on demonstrating each particular application.
  2. American Community Survey Census Profiles with MCDC Apps. This screencast illustrates how you can quickly and easily access census profiles for any place in the US using the Missouri Census Data Center’s profile applications. It’s also a good introduction to census data in general, if you’re unfamiliar with the scope of data that’s available.
  3. Search Strategies for data.census.gov. I demonstrate how to use the Census Bureau’s primary application for accessing current census data, using the advanced search tool and filters.
  4. Using TIGERweb to Explore US Census Geography. I show you how to use this web map application for viewing census geography, while explaining what some of the small-area census geographies are.

I plan on adding additional videos every month or so. The pandemic lock down and uncertainty over whether classes will be back in session this fall inspired me to do this. While I prefer written tutorials, I find that I’ve been watching YouTube more often for learning how to do certain tasks with particular software, so I thought this would be useful for others. The videos average about 10 to 15 minutes in length, although the introductory one is a bit longer. The length is intentional; I wanted to explain the concepts and describe why you’re making certain choices, instead of simply pointing and clicking without any explanation.

Feel free to spread the news, share and embed the videos in research guides or web pages, and use them in classes or workshops. Of course, for a more in-depth look at US census data, check out my book: Exploring the US Census: Your Guide to America’s Data published by SAGE.

QGIS 3.10 Screenshot

QGIS 3.10 Tutorial Workbook

I just posted an updated version of my QGIS tutorial / workbook manual, Introduction to GIS Using Open Source Software. This version was written for QGIS 3.10 A Coruña, which recently superseded QGIS 3.4 Madeira as the current Long Term Release (LTR). The LTR is intended to be more stable than the current releases and is supported for at least a year.

The workbook was designed to accompany a day-long introductory workshop that I teach and is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 is a broad and concise overview of GIS, chapters 2 to 4 are hands-on exercises that cover: the basics of using the interface and the difference between vectors and rasters (chapter 2), a site selection analysis that demonstrates geoprocessing, spatial selection, table joins, coordinate plotting, expressions, and spatial analysis (chapter 3), and a thematic mapping example that illustrates coordinate reference systems (CRS), data classification, and mapping (chapter 4). Chapter 5 summarizes data sources and resources for learning more about GIS. In chapters 2 to 4 the steps for doing the exercises are kept concise with many screenshots, while detailed commentary explaining how everything works follows.

The manual and tutorial data are freely available for personal and classroom use under a Creative Commons license. I’m providing the material for both 3.10 A Coruna and 3.4 Madeira for now, but will take down the latter at the end of the spring semester (late May 2020).

The changes between 3.4 and 3.10 are not dramatic as far as the basic tools and principles that I cover in the book go, but I thought an update was worthwhile as there are just enough changes that could trip up new users (see the 3.10 visual change log for a full list of software updates).  In addition to incorporating changes to the interface, I also took the opportunity to tighten up and condense the material. In particular, I consolidated the coordinate reference system (CRS) exercises in chapter 4 from two sections to one, because in practice I found that it was overkill for a one-day session.

Here are a few noteworthy changes to the tutorial and software that impact novice users:

  1. The default setting for the toolbar buttons is rather small, so during the setup phase in chapter 2 I inserted an optional step to make them bigger. Go to: Settings > Options > General tab, and under the Application section change the icon size from 16 to 24.
  2. In 3.10, when new files are generated from geoprocessing operations and added to your project, the layers appear in the layers panel with the name you give them. In 3.4 they were assigned generic aliases like “Clipped” and “Buffer” based on the process you ran.
  3. In 3.10 the “Quantiles” classification scheme has been replaced with “Equal Counts”. Same scheme, different terminology.
  4. There’s now a dedicated north arrow button in the map layout screen. In 3.4 and earlier versions you added an arrow by selecting the add image button.
  5. In 3.10, every time you add a layer with a CRS that doesn’t match the existing CRS of the window, you’re presented with a datum transformation screen to modify the file you’re adding. This is a helpful warning if you already have existing layers in your project that match the window and your new file doesn’t, but it’s annoying when you’re trying to add files to a blank window in a new project. You can turn this feature off under: Options > Settings > CRS tab, under Default Datum Transformations uncheck the box for Ask for datum transformation.

It’s hard to believe that this is the 10th edition I’ve published in the past ten years. QGIS has certainly come a long way during that time. For a trip down memory lane, look at the 1st edition I wrote for QGIS 1.5 Tethys in 2011! Back then I wrote the whole thing in HTML… thankfully I “discovered” LaTeX a year later, and have used it for writing tutorials ever since.

If you wanted to learn GIS in general and QGIS in particular, spend a day with the manual and work through the exercises and you’ll have a good foundation. All the basics are there, as well as best practices and the “gotchas” that tend to trip people up.

datacensusgov

data.census.gov is down? Here are some work-arounds

NOTE – the website has returned to normal, but I’m leaving this post up in case the problem ever reoccurs.

So data.census.gov is not working today. I went there repeatedly and got an empty white screen each time, regardless of which web browser I tried. My wife spotted a post on an urban planning listserv where someone wrote that they contacted the Census Bureau. The Bureau was aware of the problem, but due of staff shortages related to COVID-19 it could take a week to fix!

Fortunately there are work-arounds. The post provided links to some suggestions at the State Data Center Clearing House. The first suggestion is to use the Chrome Browser, clear your cache, and try going directly to the advanced search link at https://data.census.gov/cedsci/advanced. This didn’t work for me, so I looked at the second suggestion, which is to create deep links to specific tables and search results. This worked, but if you’re not intimately familiar with census geography and table identifiers this could be tough going.

The good news is that if you can just get to one table, that gets you in the backdoor, bypassing the initial search screens that aren’t loading. From there you can use the filter in the table search results to find what you want. For example, go here:

https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?g=0100000US&tid=ACSDP5Y2018.DP05

This brings you to the 5-year 2018 Data Profile table for Demographic and Housing for the United States. From there you can click the Filter button in the upper left-hand corner above the table name.

Filter Results Link

In the filter screen, scroll down to the bottom and hit the Clear All button to remove the filter for the US. Then go through the Advanced Filter options on the left and choose your Survey, Year, Geography, and Topic (see this earlier post for hints on this strategy). When you’re done, hit the green down arrows that Hides the filter menu (upper right-hand corner) and returns you to the results screen, where the new table results represent the filters you just applied. Browse around and download away! (Customize Table button, then Download)Filter Menu

There are alternatives to data.census.gov as well: the MCDC for getting decennial and ACS profiles (menu on right side of the screen) the Census Reporter for just the latest ACS data, and the NHGIS for accessing all census data tables past to present.

census_paper_wcib_ops

An Overview of Census Datasets and Census API Examples

This month’s post is a bit shorter, as I have just two announcements I wanted to share about some resources I’ve created.

First, I’ve written a short technical paper that’s just been published as part of the Weissman Center of International Business’ Occasional Papers Series. Exploring US Census Datsets: A Summary of Surveys and Sources provides an overview of several different datasets (decennial census, American Community Survey, Population Estimates Program, and County Business Patterns) and sources for accessing data. The paper illustrates basic themes that are part of all my census-related talks: the census isn’t just the thing that happens every ten years but is an ecosystem of datasets updated on an on-going basis, and there are many sources for accessing data which are suitable for different purposes and designed for users with varying levels of technical skill. In some respects this paper is a super-abridged version of my book, designed to serve as an introduction and brief reference.

Second, I’ve created a series of introductory notebooks on GitHub that illustrate how to use the Census Bureau’s API with Python and Jupyter Notebooks. I designed these for a demonstration I gave at NYU’s Love Data Week back on Feb 10 (the slides for the talk are also available in the repo). I structured the talk around three examples. Example A demonstrates the basics of how the API works along with some best practices, such as defining your variables at the top and progressively building links to retrieve data. It also illustrates the utility of using these technologies in concert, as you can pull data into your script and process and visualize it in one go. I also demonstrate how to retrieve lists of census variables and their corresponding metadata, which isn’t something that’s widely documented. Example B is a variation of A, extended by adding an API key and storing data in a file immediately after retrieval. Example C introduces more complexity, reading variables in from files and looping through lists of geographies to make multiple API calls.

Since I’ve written a few posts on the census API recently, I went back and added an api tag to group them together, so you can access them via a single link.

census api example

Define census API variables, build links, and retrieve data

Census Book

Exploring the US Census Book Published!

My book, Exploring the US Census: Your Guide to America’s Data, has been published! You can purchase it directly from SAGE Publishing or from Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, or your bookstore of choice (it’s currently listed for pre-order on Amazon but its availability there is imminent). It’s $45 for the paperback, $36 for the ebook. Data for the exercises and supplemental material is available on the publisher’s website, and I’ve created a landing page for the book on this site.

Exploring the US Census is the definitive researcher’s guide to working with census data. I place the census within the context of: US society, the open data movement, and the big data universe, provide a crash course on using the new data.census.gov, and introduce the fundamental concepts of census geography and subject categories (aka universes). One chapter is devoted to each of the primary datasets: decennial census (with details about the 2020 census that’s just over the horizon), American Community Survey, Population Estimates Program, and business data from the Business Patterns, Economic Census, and BLS. Subsequent chapters demonstrate how to: integrate census data into writing and research, map census data in GIS, create derivative measures, and work with historic data and microdata with a focus on the Current Population Survey.

I wrote the book as a hybrid between a techie guidebook and an academic text. I provide hands-on exercises so that you learn by doing (techie) while supplying sufficient context so you can understand and evaluate why you’re doing it (academic). I demonstrate how to find and download data from several different sources, and how to work with the data using free and open source software: spreadsheets (LibreOffice Calc), SQL databases (DB Browser for SQLite), and GIS (QGIS). I point out the major caveats and pitfalls of working with the census, along with many helpful tools and resources.

The US census data ecosystem provides us with excellent statistics for describing, studying, and understanding our communities and our nation. It is a free and public domain resource that’s a vital piece of the country’s social, political, and economic infrastructure and a foundational element of American democracy. This book is your indispensable road map for navigating the census. Have a good trip!

See the series – census book tag for posts about the content of the book, additional material that expands on that content (but didn’t make it between the covers), and the writing process.

datacensusgov

Navigating the New data.census.gov

June 2019 is the final month that the Census Bureau will post new data in the American Factfinder (AFF). From this point forward, all new datasets will be published via the new data dissemination platform data.census.gov. The second chapter of my book (now available for pre-order!) is devoted to navigating this new interface. In this post I’ll provide a preview / brief tutorial of the advanced search functions.

The new interface is search-driven, so you can type the names of topics and geographies or table ID numbers to find and explore data tables. There are spiffy data profiles for several geographies, and you have the ability to make basic thematic maps. The search interface makes it much easier to casually browse and discover data, so go ahead and explore.

I’d still recommend having a search strategy to find precisely what you need. Keyword searching alone isn’t going to cut it, because you’re searching across tens of thousands of tables in dozens of datasets. The good news is that the same strategy I’ve used for the AFF can be applied to data.census.gov: use the advanced search to filter by survey, year, geography, and topic to narrow down the list of possible tables to a manageable number, and then search or browse through those results to find what you need.

Let’s say we want to download the most recent data on home values for all the counties in Pennsylvania (or a state of your choosing). On data.census.gov click on the advanced search link under the search box. On the advanced search page scroll to the bottom to the filters. We’ll address them one by one:

Surveys. These represent all the different census datasets. Select ACS 5-Year Estimates Detailed Tables. Detailed socio-economic characteristics of the population are primarily published in the ACS. The 1-Year estimates are published for all geographies that have at least 65k people. Since most states have rural counties that have less than this threshold, we’ll have to use the 5-year estimates to get all the counties. The detailed tables are narrow, focusing on estimates for a single variable. The other options include profiles (lots of different data for one place) and subject tables (narrower in scope than profiles, but broader than the detailed tables).

filter by survey

Years. At the moment 2017 is the latest year for the ACS, so let’s select that. This quickly eliminates a lot of tables that we’re not interested in.

Geography. Choose 050 – County, then scroll down and choose Pennsylvania in the County (State) list, then All counties in Pennsylvania in the final list.

filter by geography

Topics. For this example choose Housing, then Financial Characteristics, then Housing Value and Purchase Price. Of all the filter options, this one is the most opened-ended and may require some experimentation based on what you’re looking for.

filter by topic

Codes. We don’t need to filter by codes in this example, but if we were searching for labor or business-related data we’d use this filter to limit results to specific sectors or industries by NAICS codes.

Underneath the filter menu, click the View All Results button. This brings us to the first results page, which provides a list of tables, maps, and pages related to our search. Click the button to View All Tables under the tables section.

This brings us to the table results page; the list of tables is displayed on the left, and the currently selected table is displayed on the right; in this case Value of owner-occupied housing units is shown, with counts of units by value brackets. At this stage, we can scroll through the list and browse to find tables with data that we’re interested in. We can also access the filters at the top of the list, if we want to modify our search parameters.

table results

A little further down the results list is a table for Median Value. Selecting that table will preview it on the right. Hit the Customize Table button. This opens the table in its own dedicated view. Hit the blue drop down arrow to the right of the table name, and you can modify the geography, year, or time-period on the left. On the right is a Download option. Hit download and you’ll be prompted to download a CSV file. In the download you’ll get three text files that contain metadata, the data, and descriptive information about the download. Click Download and you can save it.

customize table

Back on the customize table page, you can navigate back to the table results by clicking on “Tables” in the breadcrumb links that appear in the top left-hand corner. Then you can browse and choose additional tables.

That’s it! Not bad, right? Well, there are always caveats. At the moment, the biggest one is that you can’t easily download most geographies that are contained within other geographies. With one click we can filter to select all counties within a state, or all states within the nation. But if we wanted all census tracts in a county or all county subdivisions in a state, there aren’t any “All geographies in…” options for these geographies. We’d have to select each and every tract within a county, one at a time…

While data.census.gov is now relatively stable, it’s still under development and additional features like this should (hopefully) be implemented as time passes between now and the 2020 census. This is one reason why the American Factfinder will survive for another year, as we’ll still need to lean on it to accomplish certain tasks. Of course, there are other options within the Census Bureau (the API, the FTP site) and without (NHGIS, MCDC, Census Reporter) for accessing data.

The new platform currently provides access to several datasets from the present back to the year 2010: the decennial census, the ACS, population estimates, and several of the business datasets. The first new datasets that will be published in data.census.gov (and NOT in the AFF) include the 2017 Economic Census this summer and the 1-year 2018 ACS in September.

View the Release Notes and FAQs for more details about the platform: general documentation, recent developments, bugs, and planned enhancements. The Census Bureau also has an archived webinar with slides that discuss the transition.