Social Explorer - OUP

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    The Social Explorer database was launched in 2003 by Oxford University Press (OUP), and contains the entire U.S. census history as well as numerous other demographic and environmental study reports, as well as mapping tools. The website seamlessly integrates spatial and numeric data through an easy-to-use interface and makes working with socio-demographic data simple even for a novice user.

    In April 2019, OUP announced that OUP and Social Explorer, Inc. mutually agreed to end its partnership.  Beginning on April 22, 2019, Social Explorer. Inc. began to provide subscriptions and services to Social Explorer directly with subscribers.

    May 31, 2024 4:27pm
    Collection Content

    Social Explorer provides access to over 200 years of historical census data for the United States, as well as data on religious affiliation. Decennial census data at the county level is available from 1790 through 2010, and at the census tract level from 1940 through 2010. The American Community Survey (ACS), a yearly survey that records information previously obtained through the long form of the census, is available for the period 2005–12. Five-year and three-year estimates in addition to the ACS annual estimates are also accessible. County-level data for religious congregations and memberships can be obtained by decade for 1980 through 2000, and annually for 2009 and 2010.  Additionally, carbon emissions data for 2002 is included, obtained from the Vulcan Project.

    Other sources of demographic data

    While the census data is available from several other sources, including freely available on the census website (, the ability to create maps as well as statistical reports for topics such as religion in the U.S. within small geographic areas (as small as block groups) is unique. Also, the inclusion of historical data back to 1790 is an important advantage of Social Explorer.

    Advanced researchers may need microdata available from the Bureau of the Census or the Inter- University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). Also, some geographies other than county, state, and tract, which can be found in print reports for the older decennial censuses or in the National Historical GIS (, are not available in Social Explorer. An example is the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas for 1960 (or places for 1980). In addition, Social Explorer does not include the non- decennial (intercensal) data from 1790 to 1945, generally known as the Dubester set (referencing a guide issued by the Library of Congress).

    See the Appendix to this review, Holdings of U.S. Census Facsimile Documents in the Collection of the Center for Research Libraries, for a comprehensive list of the various U.S. census publications held by CRL in microform from original source material. This tabular data in print or facsimile format has the advantage for advanced scholars of providing a sense of structure of the data, as well as what information has and has not been recorded.

    Updates to Social Explorer (2015):

    • New Content
      • US Election Data from 2004-2012
      • Irish Population and Religious Data from 1911-2001
      • 2014 American Community Survey
      • UK Census 2011

    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.

    Updates to Social Explorer (2015):

    • New Functionality
      • Multi-Variable Mapping – Allows users to compare groups directly and visually
      • Side by side mapping tool – Display two maps at once for easy comparison
      • Swipe maps – Switch between maps with a swipe of the mouse to reveal difference between variables
      • Storyboard Tool – Presentation features help to assemble interactive maps into a compelling narrative

    Available by subscription to institutions, organizations, and individuals.


    Center for Research Libraries

    • Carolyn Ciesla, Research Assistant

    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

    • Karen Hogenboom, Numeric and Spatial Data Librarian

    University of Saskatchewan

    • Sunny Kaniyathu, Data Services Librarian

    Center for Research Libraries

    • Francis E. Alba, Project Assistant, Licensing
    Additional Reviews in Other Sources

    Social Explorer was reviewd in The Charleston Advisor. Michael Hughes, "Social Explorer," The Charleston Advisor January 1, 2017, 18(3): 47-52, accessed January, 2017.     

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