Putting Census Data to Work


Deep within a data center in Suitland, MD, hundreds of computer servers make up one of the largest collections of information on people, businesses, and governments in the country. The data, including figures and statistics on income and households, emergency preparedness and health, education and trade, spans many decades and is worth a fortune to any business looking to understand the characteristics and habits of US residents.

But this information isn’t for sale - it’s for free, and the US Census Bureau collects it. Known mostly for their decennial survey that takes count of every person in America, the Census conducts hundreds of demographic and economic surveys every year, generating an array of valuable data in the process.

Five students at the Harvard Kennedy School are analyzing that trove as part of a new class, created by Adjunct Professor and former U.S. Deputy CTO Nick Sinai to focus on technology innovation in government. Comprised of data scientists, software gurus, and product managers, our team will interview public and private groups to analyze how Census data is leveraged today, and then design ways to improve the experience and access of those groups.

Data is only valuable when used, and each visitor to census.gov is looking for something different. Journalists want easily consumed facts and statistics, readily incorporated in a story to meet an urgent deadline. Researchers need flexible access to raw data to perform analyses and test hypotheses, while economists must sort through thousands of economic and social indicators to inform and drive policy decisions. States and cities also use Census reports when planning transportation projects or housing initiatives. The team will look at how tailoring data products and formats to suit individual customers could greatly increase their utility.

The amount of data collected by Census is vast. More than 130 surveys are being conducted at various times, and visitors to the Census website can search through decades of historic results and thousands of fact tables or graphs. While the Bureau compiles reports for easy public consumption, such as Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014, the data behind those reports is complex and difficult to parse for all but the most experienced or dedicated of analysts. Based on feedback, we will look at simple ways for more users to understand the variety of data offered and make use of it.

Interaction with Census data often occurs online, and creating an engaging user experience is key to cultivating repeat customers. Statistics show that most visitors to the Census website never return, although demand for data remains consistently high. Luckily, the question is not whether Census data can be useful; economic policy centers, watchdog groups, and the media are constantly on the hunt for meaningful trends hidden in the data. Rather, the question this team will answer is: how can Census data become most accessible to help drive well-informed economic and social analysis?

Luciano Arango, Nidhi Badaya, Aaron Capizzi, Rebecca Scharfstein, Peter Willis