As a grant writer, you likely spend a lot of time hunting down demographic statistics for your proposals. Particularly if you are writing for direct service or economic development organizations, you need to show funders that you understand the economic, education, health, and racial/ethnic characteristics of the population your organization serves. Historically, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder has been an important go-to tool for grant seekers to ferret out this information—but as of March 31, 2020, American FactFinder will be retired and all Census Bureau data will be available in one centralized location: data.census.gov.
The platform won’t be fully functional until March 31, but in the meantime the data.census.gov Resources page contains a wealth of information about the impending transition, including which existing FactFinder data sets will be migrated to the new site (and where to find them in the interim), which new data sets will be available, and which older data sets and products will not be available on the new platform (including Quick Tables, sadly). The page also features several useful links, including Data Gems how-to videos “for data users who are looking for an easy and quick way to enhance their knowledge of Census data” (including a “How to Navigate data.census.gov” video), a host of PDF guides on using the different features of data.census.gov, and webinar training links that include live demonstrations on how to use the platform.
This transition might be a little rough, but while American FactFinder has been a useful tool for many of us, it’s not necessarily the most intuitive or user-friendly platform—it can take some time and trial-and-error to learn the most effective and efficient way to find the information you’re looking for. It also presents hurdles for users who are looking for a swath of useful demographic information but don’t necessarily know exactly which data or data sets they need.
FactFinder functions like a static database that accommodates inquiries and incorporates new data on a limited schedule, creating a somewhat rigid framework for users. The Census team wants to change that—as the data.census.gov Resources page states, “This vision [for a new platform] stems from overwhelming feedback that the Census Bureau has received to simplify the way customers get data. The Census Bureau continues to work on the customer experience so that it is not necessary for data users to know Census Bureau jargon or perform a complicated search to find the data that they need.”
The new platform will function more like a dynamic search engine, where users get back a much larger range of results and multiple formats (e.g., data tables and map views) without having to perform additional searches for each of them. It also features the Census website’s first surveys search functionality, delivering actual data on topics that are entered into the search bar, rather than just reports and technical documents. Another vast improvement over the old platform is that it provides more user-friendly options for downloading tables to spreadsheets—with American FactFinder, downloaded tables generate two rows and then more columns than you can count (a “machine-readable” data format), which doesn’t bode well for quick reading or data sorting. With the new platform, users can right click into a cell of a table and select options to download into more readable formats. Because the site is still being developed, there is also still time to give feedback about what you’d like to see on the new platform, and Census wants to hear what people want and any issues they are having: users can send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall, it sounds like consolidating data on one platform and keeping user experience in mind will bode well for grant seekers and other data users. But if you have a big research task on your plate this month, now is the time to pulling data from American FactFinder if you don’t want to get caught in a learning curve right before a deadline. FactFinder offers different ways to search for information: for higher-level statistics, from their main page, you can jump to quick Community Facts, which allows you to select a geography (state, county, city, town, or zip code) and access information on that geography’s population size, age, education, income, poverty levels, national origin, race, and other characteristics. Or you can click into Advanced Search, where you can drill down into more specific sub-categories—for example, if you’re interested in finding employment characteristics, you can filter by Benefits, Industry, Occupation, Work Disability Status, and several other nuanced categories. You can also select multiple geographies to see side-by-side comparisons.
Learning a new platform may be tricky for many of us who have had these American FactFinder search tools bookmarked for easy access, but the Census Bureau has clearly been working hard to make this transition as easy as possible. With the needs of data users in mind and a head start on training materials, data.census.gov looks like it might make our data-searching lives a lot easier in the long run.