On December 6, the US Census Bureau released the 2013-17 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates and I got excited! The American Community Survey (aka “ACS”) covers over 40 social, economic, housing and demographic topics and it’s ripe for advocacy analysis. Unlike the better-known Decennial Census (coming in 2020), which collects and provides data on the US population every ten years, the ACS provides information EVERY year. For a data-hungry organization like us, this is like buffet saying the once-a-week buffet that is now open every single day. (Nom, nom, nom.)
On a serious note, I cannot emphasize how much the American Community Survey is essential to our advocacy work. Much of the socioeconomic data used to create our interactive data products such as our Community Snapshots and our Data Bulletin is from the ACS dataset, and we are not the only ones who find it useful. If a journalist mentions a US poverty rate in an article, it is almost guaranteed to come from the ACS. Businesses use it to figure out where potential customers live. Government agencies and non-profits use it to determine what the greatest needs are.
Basically, American Community Survey data is woven into everyday lives in a silent – yet powerful – way. In the past, ACS data has been shared free of cost and in an accessible way, but this may not always be the case.
So, what’s my on my Data Wish List?
People have discussed whether or not new privacy practices will severely limit access to the American Community Survey and Decennial Census data. This blog post is NOT part of that discussion. However, I will talk about what I find so wonderful about ACS data right now, and what I wish other government entities would do as they work towards data transparency.
- Release data on a regular schedule – Just as I can expect big box stores to put out holiday decorations before Halloween, I can bank on 5-Year ACS data being released every year in early December. What’s even more impressive is that they announce an actual release date months in advance and stick to it. It may seem like a minor detail, but consistency builds trust.
- Dataset is easy to analyze – Each dataset released by government organization should be released in multiple formats that makes it easy for people of different skill levels to digest and analyze it. You want an Excel file? Sure! The US Census Bureau gives it to you. You can get ACS Data as an API feed, which I fondly refer to as our “data vacuum cleaner.” A couple lines of code allows WCA to obtain ACS data on all Westchester County census tracts in one go. You should even be able to get PDFs, although data in this format is tricky to extract and analyze.
- Transparent process and methodology – Government organizations should tell you how they collected the data. More importantly, they should be d upfront about the challenges they faced, especially when it comes to developing estimates for small municipalities, such as towns and villages. Even if the margins of error may be as wide as a football field, organizations should not sweep that fact under the rug. Be liked the ACS who plop them right there on the table.
What’s the big deal about data transparency?
Don’t get me wrong. There are still opportunities for improvement in the American Community Survey. Factfinder, the website used to display ACS data, is not exactly a user-friendly site. Introducing people to Factfinder should NOT require a confidence-building exercise! The fact that age groups are inconsistent across topics can send someone into a tailspin.
However, the fact remains that in this day and age where trust in anything seems to be a foolish notion, actions that build data transparency and consistency are a steady anchor in the storm. How wonderful would it be for our own county government to seriously examine what it would take to collect and release data on a regular basis, so we can all count what matters for Westchester’s children.
One can only wish…until then,