Lying with Maps and Census Data

I was recently working on some examples for my book where I discuss how census geography and maps can be used to intentionally skew research findings. I suddenly remembered Mark Monmonier’s classic How To Lie with Maps. I have the 2nd edition from 1996, and as I was adding it to my bibliography I wondered if there was a revised edition.

To my surprise, a 3rd edition was just published in 2018! This is an excellent book: it’s a fun and easy read that provides excellent insight into cartography and the representation of data with maps. There are concise and understandable explanations of classification, generalization, map projections and more with lots of great examples intended for map readers and creators alike. If you’ve never read it, I’d highly recommend it.

If you have read the previous edition and are thinking about getting the new one… I think the back cover’s tagline about being “fully updated for the digital age” is a little embellished. I found another reviewer who concurs that much of the content is similar to the previous edition. The last three chapters (about thirty pages) are new. One is devoted to web mapping and there is a nice explanation of tiling and the impact of scale and paid results on Google Maps. While the subject matter is pretty timeless, some more updated examples would have been welcome.

There are many to choose from. One of the examples I’m using in my book comes from a story the Washington Post uncovered in June 2017. Jared Kushner’s real estate company was proposing a new luxury tower development in downtown Jersey City, NJ, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. They applied for a program where they could obtain low interest federal financing if they built their development in an area were unemployment was higher than the national average. NJ State officials assisted them with creating a map of the development area, using American Community Survey (ACS) unemployment data at the census tract level to prove that the development qualified for the program.

The creation of this development area defies all logical and reasonable criteria. This affluent part of the city consists of high-rise office buildings, residential towers, and historic brownstones that have been refurbished. The census tract where the development is located is not combined with adjacent tracts to form a compact and contiguous area that functions as a unit, nor does it include surrounding tracts that have similar socio-economic characteristics. The development area does not conform to any local conventions as to what the neighborhoods in Jersey City are based on architecture, land use, demographics, or physical boundaries like major roadways and green space.

Jersey City Real Estate Gerrymandering Map

Census tracts that represent the “area” around a proposed real estate development were selected to concentrate the unemployed population, so the project could qualify for low interest federal loans.

Instead, the area was drawn with the specific purpose of concentrating the city’s unemployed population in order to qualify for the financing. The tract where the development is located has low unemployment, just like the tracts around it (that are excluded). It is connected to areas of high unemployment not by a boundary, but by a single point where it touches another tract diagonally across a busy intersection. The rest of the tracts included in this area have the highest concentration of unemployment and poverty in the city, and consists primarily of low-rise residential buildings, many of which are in poor condition. This area stretches over four miles away from the development site and cuts across several hard physical boundaries, such as an interstate highway that effectively separates neighborhoods from each other.

The differences between this development area and the actual area adjacent but excluded from the project couldn’t be more stark. Gerrymandering usually refers to the manipulation of political and voting district boundaries, but can also be used in other contexts. This is a perfect example of non-political gerrymandering, where areas are created based on limited criteria in order to satisfy a predefined outcome. These areas have no real meaning beyond this purpose, as they don’t function as real places that have shared characteristics, compact and contiguous boundaries, or a social structure that would bind them together.

The maps in the Post article high-lighted the tracts that defined the proposal area and displayed their unemployment rate. In my example I illustrate the rate for all the tracts in the city so you can clearly see the contrast between the areas that are included and excluded. What goes unmentioned here is that these census ACS estimates have moderate to high margins of error that muddy the picture even further. Indeed, there are countless ways to lie with maps!

The New NYC Census Factfinder

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.


  1. 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.