The bowels of the census–American Fact Finder

30 Mar

Finding those American facts

As impressive as QuickFacts is, there is so much more to the Census. And it gets so much more complicated.
QuickFacts is your basic one-dimensional display of data. The percentage or number of this or that in your city, county or state. But what happens if you need information by zip code? Or if you need information cross-referenced? What if you need to know not just how many people live in poverty, but who those people are? Are they young, old, Hispanic, Caucasian, or what?
For that you have to venture away from your old, comfortable pal QuickFacts and into the cold, scary depths of American Fact Finder. Hold up, it’s not so bad. You just need some patience and a little guidance.
 Let’s start by deciding which data set you need.
Once you’re in American Fact Finder, click on “Get Data” under American Community Survey. Once you’re here, you have some choices to make. Under 2008, you can see that you can choose between a three-year estimate for the years 2006-2008 or a one-year estimate for  2008. Which data set you choose depends on what information you need and, well, personal preference.
The one-year estimate is more recent data. It’s for 2008 only, while the three-year estimate averages information for 2006-2008. Sounds like a no brainer, more recent information is always better than older information, even if it’s just by two years, right?
Not always.
The one-year estimate only has information for communities of 65,000 people and greater, while the three-year estimate allows you to look at data for communities of 20,000 people or more–useful if you are looking for information for rural areas. So your geographic reach is greater.
Because the three-year estimate covers more time, the sample size is larger. For me, that wins out over the data being two years older. I know the Census would not publish iffy data, but I have a thing about sample sizes and how representative data really is. I’m just in my comfort zone with a three-year average over a one-year average. But both are valid and the choice is yours.
So what if you need data on an area of less than 20,000 people? Your wait is soon to be over. The Census will be publishing a five-year estimate (2005-2009) of the American Community Survey to include those areas later in 2010.
Viva la Census!

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