The Census Bureau’s Website: Looking for a Needle in a Haystack?

Valerie Selo, a local nonprofit grant writer, grew frustrated trying to figure out which data the U.S. Census Bureau’s website contains. Having spent hours searching fruitlessly for data about the low income population in her community, she gave up and turned to Wikipedia.

Valerie is not alone. As Harvard students working to help the U.S. Census Bureau, we interviewed over twenty people that use the Census website. Most of them were frustrated with the confusing layout of, and many were also frustrated trying to understand what data Census actually has.

Visitors to the Census website are greeted by a cluttered and often confusing landing page

Visitors to the Census website are greeted by a cluttered and often confusing landing page

How can the U.S. Census Bureau make it easier for Americans to find the Census data they need? Our student team, as part of a Harvard Kennedy School field course taught by Professor Nick Sinai, is seeking to answer that question

To Understand the Problem, First Understand the User

A summary of the team’s research plan

A summary of the team’s research plan

To start, we developed a three-part research plan to interview and observe people that visit, as well as review secondary research. Each team member separately interviewed at least five people, either asking them high-level questions about their use of the Census website or conducting a usability test.

From our research, our team grouped people into categories that we want to learn more about:

Community Leader.png

The Community Leader

Profiles: Local Government Officials, Community Organizers, Community Advocates

Use Cases:

  • Getting single data points for grant applications to gain funding

  • Getting data used in public relations releases


The Researcher

Profiles: Professor, Research Assistants, Students

Use Cases:

  • Creating data visualizations for research papers

  • Analyzing trends for research papers

  • Looking through data out of curiosity

Data Analyst.png

The Data Analyst

Profiles: Government Employees, Think Tank Researchers, Private Sector Analysts

Use Cases:

  • Creating data visualizations for internal organization use

  • Publishing research reports for companies or public


The Developer

Profiles: App Programmers, Web Developers, Civic Tech Programmers

Use Cases:

  • Building products using data

  • Researching for consulting firms or political campaigns

After reviewing our research, we brainstormed possible improvements to the Census website, including:

●      Explain what data the Census has: Users do not know what data the Census has;

●      Simplify the search: Users like search tools but the current options are clunky and often deliver errors;

●      Harmonize and integrate data: Datasets are not easily comparable;

●      Focus on data presentation: Tables are not machine-readable and other visualization options should be created;

●      One API with clear documentation: 50 APIs are impossible to navigate and the documentation is unclear;

●      Integrate with Google Searches: Most people search for data through Google; and

●      Explore niche feature: Some community advocates said they wanted a neighborhood dashboard and some researchers said that they wanted to easily identify a control group.

Team members Arjun Bisen and Carissa Chen run through a user flow

Team members Arjun Bisen and Carissa Chen run through a user flow

Armed with these insights, our team is now ready to begin prototyping improvements, as way to test our ideas. We are looking forward to seeing if we can help people like Valerie!

Arjun Bisen, Ayush Chakravarty, Carissa Chen, Daniel Drabnik, Tony Thumpasery