Census Bureau makes mapping demographics online a snap

12/18/2013 7:59 PM

12/18/2013 8:00 PM

People who are clever with computers and savvy about statistics are able to “map” demographic data in ways that readily reveal important facts about communities.

For those of us who are not techno geeks, however, turning numbers into understandable color-coded maps is nearly impossible.

But there’s good news for do-it-yourself demographers and folks who like to delve into what makes communities tick.

The U.S. Census Bureau this week launched a remarkably easy-to-use interactive mapping website called Census Explorer.

It lets anybody quickly see how his or her neighborhood’s population characteristics – such as median incomes, employment stats, education levels, home ownership rates and more – compare with others throughout the region and across the country. And the data is fresh because it uses just-released 2012 statistics.

The website also enables fast comparisons with the past, so people can see how their community has changed since 1990 or 2000.

Those types of geographic comparisons used to be very time-consuming and cumbersome, unless you knew how to tame the TIGER – the Census Bureau’s Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing database.

Now, it’s a piece of cake. Just type in your home address to find out about what’s typical for people in your neighborhood, or search for any other place in America. Searches by census tract, county and state also are simple.

The interactive map allows for easy zooming in and out of regions, and users can digitally jump about the country in search of fun facts. At least some people think demographic facts are fun.

Demographic data can be useful, especially for business owners. Say a small company wants to open a new shop geared toward serving senior citizens. The Census Explorer can quickly map which communities have the highest percentage of people over 65 years old. For example, those seeking seniors will find lots of them in parts of northeast Merced, where they make up 19.1 percent of the population. On the southwest side of Merced, by contrast, a mere 5.5 percent are seniors.

Spotting such demographic differences is easy on this new government website because everything is color-coded. The site features choropleth maps, which use graded differences in color to indicate the average value of some measured characteristic in a specific area. So a neighborhood with lots of seniors shows up as a dark brown, while those with few seniors are colored a light cream. There are five shades in all, so differences are readily apparent.

Depending on the topic, the Northern San Joaquin Valley jumps out. Take, for instance, the percentage of immigrants from foreign countries. There are many parts of Montana where less than 1 percent of the population was born abroad. Compare that to parts of south Modesto, where 46.6 percent are foreign-born.

Here’s another cool thing about this interactive mapping tool: It allows you to see how that south Modesto neighborhood has changed over time. In 1990, only 25.6 percent of residents there were immigrants, but that increased to 33.6 percent by 2000 and 46.6 percent by 2012.

Looking at that neighborhood’s income levels over time is even more revealing. The 1990 census showed the median annual household income there was $25,335, which with inflation would be the 2012 equivalent of $45,297. Sadly, incomes there haven’t kept pace: The median income last year was just $30,906.

To see how low that income level really is, cruise due north on the interactive map and click on the dark brown Del Rio neighborhood. The median household income there last year was $80,591. That census tract, which includes the community built around the Del Rio Country Club, has gained ground economically the past two decades. The 1990 census determined its median income back then was $36,031, which was the 2012 equivalent of $64,420.

So the map shows how one of Stanislaus County’s poorest neighborhoods has grown poorer over the decades, while one of its richest neighborhoods has grown richer.

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