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GIS and Census participation

It’s been too long since my last blog post. Have been quite busy with work, and even though Twitter is a microblogging service, sending a tweet now and then really isn’t an excuse to keep up my actual blog.

One of the projects keeping me (very) busy is our work to help boost participation in the 2010 Census. I thought I’d write about some of our interactive mapping and participation rate analysis along these lines.

In August I described how our team at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research was creating metro-scale maps showing where hard-to-count communities were located so local census advocates could target their outreach. Then in late January we launched our interactive version of those maps at www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org. Originally we designed the site to show hard-to-count areas, but these are only where it was expected there’d be low census participation. Then, on March 23, the Census Bureau started publishing the actual participation rates on a local and national basis. So a week later we updated our site to emphasize the latest participation rates (this link zooms in to Manhattan showing tract-level participation overlaid on a map of hard-to-count tracts).

Though the Census Bureau’s Take 10 map (and a related Google Earth application) display the daily participation rates nationwide, we decided to provide several features that the Census Bureau doesn’t. At our site you can:

  • type in a county and highlight the tracts below a certain participation rate (you can enter whatever rate you want);
  • sort the resulting list so you can see at a glance the highest and lowest performing tracts (this also will be highlighted on the map so you can see how concentrated they are); and
  • compare the 2010 rate map with the 2000 rate map (click the “More…” tab and check the box for “Participation Rate in 2000″).

(Of course, you can also click on any spot on the map to display the latest participation rate for that area — state, county, or tract — depending on how close in or out you’ve zoomed.)

These are the types of data analysis and spatial visualization tools that were requested by census advocates, so they can use the maps to focus on areas that need their help the most.

In order to provide some context for the interactive map, our Center also posted an analysis of the first week’s participation rate. It was a combination of basic statistical analysis and mapping. We examined the correlation between participation rate and hard-to-count scores at the tract level nationwide, and not surprisingly found that rates tended to be lower in hard to count areas. This should help bolster the work of groups who’ve been working in these communities, confirming that they’re focused on areas that need support the most if we want to achieve a 100% count.

We also examined county-level statistics on race/ethnicity using the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates from 2008. (The American Community Survey would provide a richer set of characteristics to examine, but any data from areas with less than 20,000 population are suppressed in the ACS — and this accounts for about 1,300 of the nation’s 3,200 counties.)

The county-level data indicate that race/ethnicity is strongly correlated with census participation (at least in the first week), with participation rates tending to be higher in counties with a greater percentage of whites while the rates tended to be lower in counties with a greater percentage of blacks and Latinos. Because we didn’t have other socio-economic data to evaluate, we weren’t able to disentangle the effects of other characteristics such as low educational attainment, poverty, housing conditions, etc. that may have a stronger correlation while cutting across racial and ethnic categories. An opportunity for further research. As a next step we may also examine county-level unemployment rates and participation rates, as well as evaluating how well the first week’s analysis holds up as time goes on.

Friday (April 2) we added another feature, information about the areas that will receive a second census questionnaire.  (The Funders Census Initiative sent out a news advisory highlighting this service on April 5.)  Now when you click on the www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org map or type in your street address, you’ll see a popup window that (among other things) tells you if households in your tract will be receiving replacement Census forms. We think this will help minimize confusion over people receiving another census form (even if they’ve already mailed their’s in!). This is a “just in case” thing from the Bureau — mailing another form to households in historically low response areas, and mailing another form to households in moderately low response areas who haven’t yet sent their’s in. But the geographic scope of the “blanket” and “target” replacement mailing areas are pretty extensive in most cities (see maps at CUR’s website), so lots of people may be confused. Our mapping site provides a simple way of clearing the air.

We’ve also mapped those second mailing areas. When you visit www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org, select the “More…” tab and zoom in to your area of interest. For example, here’s Boston, MA. Click either or both check boxes in the “April 2010 Replacement Questionnaires” section to map the tracts receiving replacement census forms.

Our hard-to-count mapping site still has its original functionality — such as visualizing the demographic characteristics that will make it difficult to achieve a complete Census count; overlaying ZIP Codes, mail return rates from 2000, recent foreclosure risks by tract; and seeing who’s tweeting about the Census in your area.

But we’re also planning for next steps, thinking of the mapping application as a platform for future Census-related efforts (tracking how successful census advocates were, displaying the 2010 results, enabling the general public to get involved in a meaningful way in the redistricting process). Any ideas? We’d love to hear them.

2 Responses

  1. The vital work of CUR continues with the Census hard to count maps. The colors and explanations of the different variables are a very helpful visualization for students, and we use it in our urban geography classes at the Academy of Urban Planning.

    Students looked at their neighborhoods, saw the 200 return rate, and were asked to explain what variables of their neighborhood played the biggest part in the high (or low) return rate. For us in Bushwick, that meant linguistic isolation and renters, for Brownsville and East New York, poverty and unemployment. That lead to a discussion of how these issues make it hard to the government to communicate with people, and what can be done about it.

    I hope that the great work continues at CUR!

  2. Thanks Adam! Glad our maps were helpful to you and your students.

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