The good news is that the Census Bureau has begun releasing results of the 1990 census, the most detailed collection of statistics ever gathered about Americans.
The bad news is that many companies will not know how to use the census information to their advantage or, intimidated by the sheer volume of it, will never use it at all.
"Getting information from the census is like taking a drink out of a fire hydrant," said Barbara Everitt Bryant, director of the U.S. Census Bureau. Ms. Bryant was the keynote speaker at a daylong conference in Baltimore last month, co-sponsored by the Census Bureau and the Maryland Office of Planning, on how to use the new census data.
So much information is available, right down to the type of bathrooms we have in our homes, that trying to make use of the data may seem overwhelming.
Yet census figures are not just for people Ms. Bryant calls "demographics junkies."
Anyone thinking of starting a business, expanding market share or simply keeping up can benefit from census figures, proponents say.
With 1990 data and other census reports, a real estate agent could generate a map of homes in his territory that are likely to be listed soon for sale. The owner of a retail chain with plans to expand could target the best possible locations for new stores, based on competitors' sales in the area and local consumers' buying trends.
"Whether it's a non-profit targeting services to needs or businesses looking for ways to reach consumers, the only limit is imagination," said Ronald M. Kreitner, director of the Maryland Office of Planning.
The basic questions asked of 100 percent of the population in the 1990 census elicited information on age, sex, race, marital status, number of units in the home structure, number of rooms )) in the home, whether it is owned or rented, and its value or monthly rent.
The census also directed more probing questions toward about one of six households. Questions to that sample included details on education enrollment and attainment, place of birth, ancestry, language spoken at home, migration, fertility, occupation, place of work, income in 1989, vehicles available, year moved into the home, its plumbing facilities and the year it was built. Sample data are multiplied to represent the total population.
Added to the full-census data and sample question results are reports taken from other censuses, the last in 1987, on retail trade, agriculture and government. The end result of all these facts is general information about the nation as a whole and intimate details about the block down the street.
Such information can be used to track trends in the nation or just in one type of business.
Ms. Bryant named one trend that affects the Census Bureau and data users directly. She calls it "the democratization of data." For the first time this year, data from the 1990 census will be available to anyone on compact disk-read only memory (CD-ROM) laser disks. Ms. Bryant says one CD-ROM disk holds as much information as 1,500 flexible diskettes.
"Anyone with a personal computer and CD-ROM reader can access the data we have," said Ms. Bryant. CD-ROM readers and software are available from independent computer vendors for less than $1,000, she says.
Ms. Bryant admitted the market for information on CD-ROM disks will start small.
"My gut reaction is that it will start small and grow," she said. But soon "you'll see the P-TA looking at the neighborhood or a church at its parish" by using CD-ROM disks, she predicts. "The software will make CD-ROM user-friendly."
Potential data users disagree on the user-friendliness and accessibility of information on CD-ROM.
"You can do minimal look-up without getting additional software," said a librarian who expects to be fielding patrons' calls about census data. "It just isn't going to be that easy to access the information."
Even if they don't have CD-ROM players and associated software, users can tap into the Census Bureau's data files through CENDATA, the bureau's online computer service. CENDATA is available to anyone with a personal computer, modem and another online information service such as CompuServe or DIALOG.
Census data are also available on computer tapes, floppy disks and microfiche and in massive printed reports.
What really excites people who plan to be heavy users of census data is what the Census Bureau calls the TIGER System. Ms. Bryant calls TIGER "the technological breakthrough of this census."
TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) is a computerized geographic data base that allows users to merge specific census data with maps of any geographic area in the country.
"The data don't do you much good if you can't geographically reference them," said Michel Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning.