Technical platform & interface
In addition to providing online access for over 200 years’ worth of decennial census data, Social Explorer’s great strength is as a visualization tool. It provides two valuable features: a robust, easy-to-use mapping tool, and the availability of detailed documentation along with a data dictionary. Interactive thematic maps based on available census geographies can be generated without any prior experience with GIS software. Users can download and print generated maps in Microsoft PowerPoint or JPEG image format, and view associated data in report form and save in Microsoft Excel, as well as other formats optimized for statistical and GIS software. Reports follow the arrangement of statistical tables published by the Census Bureau in American Factfinder. Guidance is provided on how to easily import Social Explorer data into statistical software programs, including SAS, SPSS, or STATA syntax files.
The Data Dictionary and the documentation offer more information on variables, including definitions, data sources, and how variables were derived. The site also provides an animated training guide for new users.
The statistical reports interface requires picking a survey as the first step, which can be challenging for users who are not familiar with the structure of census surveys. Subsequent screens are very similar to the Census Bureau’s American Factfinder search tool. The mapping interface is in fact much easier to use than the thematic map feature on the Census Bureau’s website. The initial search screen allows searching by year and topic or by survey. Data can be displayed as graduated colors, dot density, or bubbles. Maps can be displayed as a single map, two maps side by side, or as a “swipe” map where one map is obscured by another and is revealed by swiping a bar across the screen. There is a choice of six basemaps, and labels and boundaries can be turned on and off at a granular level.
Once users have created a free account, maps can be incorporated into a “story,” which can be downloaded as a Powerpoint presentation. For example, the user could choose housing topics from the 1940 Census County and Census Tract data, and then map the percentage of renter-occupied housing by county. Furthermore, once the map is displayed, it can be zoomed in to a particular geographic area and saved. The user can then zoom to a different geographical area or create a map of renter-occupied housing in 1950 for the same area. Individual maps can be exported as images or Powerpoint slides.
One caution: the interface works best for users who are already familiar with the Decennial Census, particularly when using the older data or tracking trends over time. For example, different questions were asked in censuses over the years about transportation to work, so looking at trends in public transportation is not as easy as it appears at first.
Geography can also be a complex issue when using census data. Boundaries shift: many maps in Social Explorer can be drawn at the tract level, but tracts were created over several decennial censuses, beginning with the largest cities in 1910 but not completed until 1990. Users looking for neighborhood racial composition in Little Rock, Arkansas, during 1950 would be disappointed, and if they were unfamiliar with the development of census geographies they would not know why this data is unavailable. This of course represents a limitation of the original data rather than Social Explorer’s product, but a link to further explanation would be helpful.