ACS Data on Computers and the Internet
The Census Bureau recently released the latest five-year period estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), with averages covering the years from 2013 to 2017.
Back in 2013 the Bureau added new questions to the ACS on computer and internet use: does a household have a computer or not, and if yes what type (desktop or laptop, smartphone, tablet, or other), and does a household have an internet subscription or not, and if so what kind (dial-up, broadband, and type of broadband). 1-year averages for geographies with 65,000 people or more have been published since 2013, but now that five years have passed there is enough data to publish reliable 5-year averages for all geographies down to the census tract level. So with this 2013-2017 release we have complete coverage for computer and internet variables for all counties, ZCTAs, places (cities and towns), and census tracts for the first time.
Summaries of this data are published in table S2801, Types of Computers and Internet Subscriptions. Detailed tables are numbered B28001 through B28010 and are cross-tabulated with each other (presence of computer and type of internet subscription) and by age, educational attainment, labor force status, and race. You can access them all via the American Factfinder or the Census API, or from third-party sites like the Census Reporter. The basic non-cross-tabbed variables have also been incorporated into the Census Bureau’s Social Data Profile table DP02, and in the MCDC Social profile.
The Census Bureau issued a press-release that discusses trends for median income, poverty rates, and computer and internet use (addressed separately) and created maps of broadband subscription rates by county (I’ve inserted one below). According to their analysis, counties that were mostly urban had higher average rates of access to broadband internet (75% of all households) relative to mostly rural counties (65%) and completely rural counties (63%). Approximately 88% of all counties that had subscription rates below 60 percent were mostly or completely rural.
Not surprisingly, counties with lower median incomes were also associated with lower rates of subscription. Urban counties with median incomes above $50,000 had an average subscription rate of 80% compared to 71% for completely rural counties. Mostly urban counties with median incomes below $50k had average subscription rates of 70% while completely rural counties had an average rate of 62%. In short, wealthier rural counties have rates similar to less wealthy urban counties, while less wealthy rural areas have the lowest rates of all. There also appear to be some regional clusters of high and low broadband subscriptions. Counties within major metro areas stand out as clusters with higher rates of subscription, while large swaths of the South have low rates of subscription.
Using GeoDa to Identify Broadband Clusters
I was helping a student recently with making LISA maps in GeoDa, so I quickly ran the data (percentage of households with subscription to any broadband service) through to see if there were statistically significant clusters. It’s been a couple years since I’ve used GeoDa and this version (1.12) is significantly more robust than the one I remember. It focuses on spatial statistics but has several additional applications to support basic data mapping and stats. The interface is more polished and the software can import and export a number of different vector and tabular file formats.
The Univariate Local Moran’s I analysis, also known as LISA for local indicators of spatial auto-correlation, identifies statistically significant geographic clusters of a particular variable. Once you have a polygon shapefile or geopackage with the attribute you want to study, you add it to GeoDa and then create a weights file (Tools menu) using the unique identifier for the shapes. The weights file indicates how individual polygons neighbor each other: queens contiguity classifies features as neighbors as long as they share a single node, while rooks contiguity classifies them as neighbors if they share an edge (at least two points that can form a line).
Once you’ve created and saved a weights file you can run the analysis (Shapes menu). You select the variable that you want to map, and can choose to create a cluster map, scatter plot, and significance map. The analysis generates 999 random permutations of your data and compares it to the actual distribution to evaluate whether clusters are likely the result of random chance, or if they are distinct and significant. Once the map is generated you can right click on it to change the number of permutations, or you can filter by significance level. By default a 95% confidence level is used.
The result for the broadband access data is below. The High-High polygons in red are statistically significant clusters of counties that have high percentages of broadband use: the Northeast corridor, much of California, the coastal Pacific Northwest, the Central Rocky Mountains, and certain large metro areas like Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, big cities in Texas, and a few others. There is a relatively equal number of Low-Low counties that are statistically significant clusters of low broadband service. This includes much of the deep South, south Texas, and New Mexico. There are also a small number of outliers. Low-High counties represent statistically significant low values surrounded by higher values. Examples include highly urban counties like Philadelphia, Baltimore City, and Wayne County (Detroit) as well as some rural counties located along the fringe of metro areas. High-Low counties represent significant higher values surrounded by lower values. Examples include urban counties in New Mexico like Santa Fe, Sandoval (Albuquerque), and Otero (Alamogordo), and a number in the deep south. A few counties cannot be evaluated as they are islands (mostly in Hawaii) and thus have no neighbors.
All ACS data is published at a 90% confidence level and margins of error are published for each estimate. Margins of error are typically higher for less populated areas, and for any population group that is small within a given area. I calculated the coefficient of variation for this variable at the county level to measure how precise the estimates are, and used GeoDa to create a quick histogram. The overwhelming majority had CV values below 15, which is regarded as being highly reliable. Only 16 counties had values that ranged from 16 to 24, which puts them in the medium reliability category. If we were dealing with a smaller population (for example, dial-up subscribers) or smaller geographies like ZCTAs or tracts, we would need to be more cautious in analyzing the results, and might have to aggregate smaller populations or areas into larger ones to increase reliability.
The issue of the digital divide has gained more coverage in the news lately with the exploration of the geography of the “new economy”, and how technology-intensive industries are concentrating in certain major metros while bypassing smaller metros and rural areas. Lack of access to broadband internet and reliable wifi in rural areas and within older inner cities is one of the impediments to future economic growth in these areas.
You can download a shapefile with the data and results of the analysis described in this post.