Census Workshop Recap

I’ve been swamped these past few months, revising my census book, teaching a spatial database course, and keeping the GIS Lab running. Thus, this will be a shorter post!

Last week I taught a workshop on understanding, finding, and accessing US Census Data at the Metropolitan Library Council of New York. If you couldn’t make it, here are the presentation slides and the group exercise questions.

Most of the participants were librarians who were interested in learning how to help patrons find and understand census data, but there were also some data analysts in the crowd. We began with an overview of how the census is structured by dataset, geography, and subject categories. I always cover the differences between the decennial census and the ACS, with a focus on how to interpret ACS estimates and gauge their reliability.

For workshops I think it’s best to start with searching for profiles (lots of different data for one place). This gives new users a good overview of the breadth and depth of the types of variables that are available in the census. Since this was a New York City-centric crowd we looked at the City’s excellent NYC Population Factfinder first. The participants formed small groups and searched through the application to answer a series of fact-finding questions that I typically receive. Beyond familiarizing themselves with the applications and data, the exercises also helped to spark additional questions about how the census is structured and organized.

Then we switched over to the Missouri Census Data Center’s profile and trends applications (listed on the right hand side of their homepage) to look up data for other parts of the country, and in doing so we were able to discuss the different census geographies that are available for different places. Everyone appreciated the simple and easy to use interface and the accessible tables and graphics. The MCDC doesn’t have a map-based search, so I did a brief demo of TIGERweb for viewing census geography across the country.

Once everyone had this basic exposure, we hopped into the American Factfinder to search for comparison tables (a few pieces of data for many places). We discussed how census data is structured in tables and what the difference between the profile, summary, and detailed tables are. We used the advanced search and I introduced my tried and true method of filtering by dataset, geography, and topic to find what we need. I mentioned the Census Reporter as good place to go for ACS documentation, and as an alternate source of data. Part of my theme was that there are many tools that are suitable for different needs and skill levels, and you can pick your favorite or determine what’s suitable for a particular purpose.

We took a follow-the-leader approach for the AFF, where I stepped through the website and the process for downloading two tables and importing them into a spreadsheet, high-lighting gotchas along the way. We did some basic formulas for aggregating ACS estimates to create new margins of error, and a VLOOKUP for tying data from two tables together.

We wrapped up the morning with a foreshadowing of what’s to come with the new (which will replace the AFF) and the 2020 census. While there’s still much uncertainty around the citizenship question and fears of an under count, the structure of the dataset won’t be too different from 2010 and the timeline for release should be similar.