Get glimpse of the Census on the Web

March 05, 2001|By Mike Himowitz

IF YOU WANT TO "look for America," as Simon and Garfunkel once put it, you can find it at the Census Bureau's Web site. Starting this week, the nation's head-counters will begin posting the information that you and millions of other householders provided when you filled in your decennial census forms last April.

In the past, it took years to get the figures to the public - in the form of thousands of pages of mind-numbing tables that tell us who we are, where we live, how old we are, what we look like, how much we earn, where we work, how much time we spent in school and hundreds of other demographic factoids that collectively identify the American experience - inasmuch as numbers can ever tell that story.

This time around, the Census Bureau has made an outstanding effort to harness the latest technology - the World Wide Web - to bring that data to the people who provided and paid for it with their tax dollars. From broad national summaries to neighborhood profiles and maps, it will offer us the best look at ourselves that we've ever had.

The site, called American FactFinder (http://factfinder.census.gov), has been under development for several years. It's still a work in progress and a bit buggy, but it demonstrates what's possible when talented people in government concentrate their energies and efforts on serving the public.

You'll be reading a lot about the census over the coming months, so a bit of background may be in order. The Constitution requires a count of the population every 10 years in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. As the population shifts, some states gain seats and others lose them (Maryland retains its eight seats this time around). By law, the basic head count must be delivered to Congress by the end of the year in which the Census is taken. That information - the population of each state - was released in December.

The second round of information, which will appear this month, is used for redistricting - the drawing of boundaries for Congressional, state legislative and local government districts. It includes the age and race of the population at the state, county, tract and block level.

Besides telling us where we're moving, this is the release that the politicians are really interested in because the information helps determine who represents whom. It can alter the balance of power in at every legislative level, and it determines how billions of dollars in population-based federal aid are distributed. By law (the official title is PL94-171), this information must be delivered to the states by April 1. So you'll see 2000 data for additional states appearing on FactFinder almost every day.

Starting in June, we'll start to see the second release - data that demographers, planners, marketers and information junkies drool over. It contains the rest of the information in the "short form," which each household is required to fill out. It includes detailed breakdowns by age and sex, the number of people in each household, their relationships, and whether they own or rent their home. So if you want to know how many men over 65 live in apartments with their grandchildren in your city, or how many school age children live in a certain neighborhood, you can find out.

In September, the detailed data will start to appear, based on the "long form" that one out of every six households filled out. It contains information about marital status, education, ancestry, employment, education, migration patterns and specific housing figures (including the infamous "how many bathrooms" question). If you're thinking of moving, this can tell you almost everything you need to know about the demographics of a particular area.

As a computer-oriented journalist who has struggled with raw Census data for almost two decades, I'm amazed at how easy FactFinder makes it to get the information you're looking for. By filling out simple forms or selecting categories of information from pull-down lists, you can easily generate reports by state, city, county, or town, along with maps that put the information in perspective. If you're looking for a quick data fix, there are dozens of predefined reports.

Most of the figures you'll find at the moment are from the 1990 Census, but over the coming months they will be replaced by Census 2000 numbers. You'll also find tables from the bureau's periodic economic census and its ongoing American Community Survey (which may replace the detailed long form entirely some day).

Meanwhile, census officials are counting on the Internet as their publishing medium of the future. While 90 percent of the 1990 Census results were in printed form, officials say, only 10 percent of the Census 2000 results will be available in print. The rest will be online (or in raw format on CD and DVD for those with the patience for serious numbers crunching).

Paula Schneider, the bureau's principal associate director for programs, said the agency is working on a feature that will eventually allow a visitor to type in his address and receive a detailed demographic profile of his neighborhood.

For the moment, be warned that FactFinder is still suffering growing pains. I wouldn't be surprised if it slowed down or crashed more than once under the onslaught of curious surfers over the next few weeks. But it's a remarkable achievement and a fine example of public service. If you're interested in who we are and how we live, pay a visit.

Ooooops department: In my column about cleaning up a hard drive several weeks ago, I advised readers to use a Windows utility called Disk Cleanup. After receiving mail from more than a few frustrated souls, I discovered that this utility is only available in Windows 98, and not in Windows 95. If you're a Win 95 user who searched in vain for the program, I apologize.

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