The Map Reliability Calculator for Classifying ACS Data

The staff at the Population Division at NYC City Planning take the limitations of the American Community Survey (ACS) data seriously. Census estimates for tract-level data tend to be unreliable; to counter this, they aggregate tracts into larger Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (NTAs) to produce estimates that have better precision. In their Census Factfinder tool, they display but grey-out variables where the margin of error (MOE) is unacceptably large. If users want to aggregate geographies, the Factfinder does the work of re-computing the margins of error.

Now they’ve released a new tool for census mappers. The Map Reliability Calculator is an Excel spreadsheet for measuring the reliability of classification schemes for making choropleth maps. Because each ACS estimate is published with a MOE, it’s possible that certain estimates may fall outside their designated classification range.

For example, we’re 90% confident that 60.5% plus or minus 1.5% of resident workers 16 years and older in Forest Hills, Queens took public transit to work during 2011-2015. The actual value could be as low as 59% or as high as 62%. Now let’s say we have a classification scheme that has a class with a range from 60% to 80%. Forest Hills would be placed in this class since its estimate is 60.5%, but it’s possible that it could fall into the class below it given the range of the margin of error (as the value could be as low as 59%).

The tool determines how good your classification scheme is by calculating the percent of estimates that could fall outside their assigned class, based on each MOE and the break point of the class. On the left of the sheet you paste your estimates and MOEs, and then type the number of classes you want. On the right, the reliability of classifying that data is calculated for equal intervals (equal range of values in each class) and quantiles (equal number of data points in each class). You can see the reliability of each class and the overall reliability of the scheme. The scheme is classified as reliable if: no individual class has more than 20% of its values identified as possibly falling outside the class, and less than 10% of all the scheme’s values possibly fall outside their classes.

I pasted some 5-year ACS data for NYC PUMAs below (the percentage of workers 16 years and older who take public transit to work in 2011-2015) under STEP 1. In STEP 2 I entered 5 for the number of classes. In the classification schemes on the right, equal intervals is reliable; only 6.6% of the values may fall outside their class. Quantiles was not reliable; 11.9% fell outside. If I reduce the number of classes to 4, reliability improves and both schemes fall under 10%; although unreliability for one of the classes for quantiles is high at 18%, but still below the 20% threshold. Equal intervals should usually perform better than quantiles, as the latter scheme can make rather arbitrary breaks that result in small differences in value ranges between classes (in order to insure that each class has the same number of data points).

Map reliability calculator with 5 classes

Map reliability calculator with 4 classes

You can also enter custom-defined schemes. For example let’s say you use natural breaks (classes determined by gaps in value ranges). There’s a 2-step process here; first you classify the data in GIS and determine what the breaks are, and then you enter them in the spreadsheet. If you’re using QGIS there’s a snag in doing this; QGIS doesn’t show you the “true” breaks of your data based on the actual values, and when you classify data it displays clean breaks that overlap. For example, natural breaks of this data with 5 classes appears like this:

24.4 – 29.0
29.0 – 45.9
45.9 – 55.8
55.8 – 65.1
65.1 – 73.3

So, does the value for 29.0 fall in the first class or the second? The answer is, the first (test it by selecting that record in the attribute table and see where it is on the map, and what color it is). So you need to adjust the values appropriately, paying attention to the precision and scale of your numbers. In this case I bump the first value of each class up by .1, except for the bottom class which you leave alone:

24.4 – 29.0
29.1 – 45.9
46.0 – 55.8
55.9 – 65.1
65.2 – 73.3

In the calculator you have to enter the top class value first, and just the first value in the range:


Map reliability calculator with user defined classes

In this case only 7.1% of the total values may fall outside their class so things look good – but my bottom class barely makes the minimum class threshold at 19.4%. I can try dropping the classes down to 4 or I can manually adjust this class to see if I can improve reliability.

If you’re unsure if you made the right adjustments to the classes in translating them from QGIS to the calculator, in QGIS turn on the Show Feature Count option for the layer to see how many data points are in each class, and compare that to the class counts in the calculator. If they don’t match, you need to re-adjust.

QGIS natural breaks and feature count

This is a great tool for census mappers who want or need to account for issues with ACS reliability. It’s an Excel spreadsheet but I used it in LibreOffice Calc with no problem. In addition to the calculator sheet there’s a second sheet with instructions and background info. Download the Map Reliability Calculator here. You can try it out with this test data,  workers who commute with mass transit, 2011-2015 ACS for NYC PUMAs.

Formulas for Working With Census ACS Data in Excel / Calc

After downloading US census data, you often need to reformat it before using it. It’s quite common that you download files where the population is broken down by gender and age, and you need to aggregate the data to get a total or divide a particular characteristic to get a percent total. This is pretty straightforward if you’re working with decennial census data, but data from the American Community Survey (ACS) is a little trickier to deal with since you’re working with estimates that have a margin of error. When creating new data, you also have to calculate what the margin of error is for your derived numbers. I’ll walk through some examples of how you would do this in a spreadsheet (the formulas below will work in either Excel or Calc).

Creating an Aggregate

We’ll use the following data in our example:


We have the total population of people three years and older who are enrolled in school, and a breakdown of this population enrolled in grades 1 through 4 and grades 5 through 8 in a few counties in New York, with margins of error for each data point. Our data is from the 3 year averaged 2005-2007 American Community Survey.

Let’s say we want to create a total for students who are enrolled in grades 1 through 8 for each county. We create a new column and sum the estimates for each county with the formula e3+g3, or sum(e3:g3).

To calculate a margin or error (MOE) for our grade 1 to 8 data, first we have to use the find and replace command to get rid of the “+/-” signs in the MOE column, so our spreadsheet will treat our values as numbers and not text (this is an issue if you downloaded the data as an Excel file – if you download a txt file the +/- is not included). Depending on the dataset you’re working with, you may also need to replace dashes, which represent data that was null or not estimated.

Once the data is cleaned up, we can insert a new column with this formula:


This calculates our new margin of error by squaring the moes for each of our data points, summing the results together, and taking the square root of that sum. In other words,


Once that’s done, you may want to round the new MOE to a whole number.

Creating a Percent Total

Let’s calculate the percentage of the population 3 years and older enrolled in school that are in grades 1 through 8. Based on what we have thus far (I hid the columns E,F,G, and H for grades 1-4 and 5-8 in this screenshot, as we don’t need them):


We insert a new column where we divide our subgroup by the total, as you would expect – I3/C3. In the next column we insert the following formula to create a MOE for our new percent total:


This one’s a little weightier than our last formula. We’re taking the square of our percent total (K3) and the square of the MOE of the total population (D3), multiplying them together, then subtracting that number from the square of the MOE of our subgroup (J3). Then we take the square root of the whole thing, then divide it by our total population (C3). If you’re saying – HUH? Maybe this is clearer:


Finally, we have something like this:


Based on our data, we can say things like “There were approximately 30,556 students enrolled in 1st through 8th grade per year in Dutchess County, NY between 2005 and 2007, plus or minus 1,184 students. An estimated 37% of the population enrolled in school in the county was in the 1st through 8th grade, plus or minus 1%.” The ACS estimates have a 90% confidence interval.

Wrap Up

In this example we worked with aggregating and calculating percentages based on characteristics. We could also use these same formulas to aggregate data by geography, if we wanted to add the characteristics for all the counties together.

For the full documentation on working with ACS data, take a look at the appendix in the Census’ ACS Compass Guide, What General Data Users Need to Know. It provides you with the formulas in their proper statistical notation (for those of you more mathematically inclined than I) and includes formulas for calculating other kinds of numbers, such as ratios and percent change. It does provide you with worked-through examples, but not with spreadsheet formulas. I used their examples when I created formulas the first time around, so I could compare my formula results to their examples to insure that I was getting it right. I’d strongly recommend doing that before you start plugging away with your own data – one misplaced parentheses and you could end up with a different (and incorrect) result.