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NYC Planning Department Revamps Census FactFinder App

The app now facilitates custom geographic searches accessing the latest American Community Survey socioeconomic data.

The New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) has launched a major update to its Census FactFinder tool that enables users to create customized profiles of various New York City geographies.

Working with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the DCP developed an interactive mapping application that associates American Community Survey (ACS) data to its respective geographies, and provides query, selection and visualization capabilities.

“The app grew out of a need by our city planners and our agencies who would come to us and say, ‘I have a program and a budget, but I need to get a sense of where to focus my program, or I need to know more about a neighborhood because I’m thinking about providing a specific resource there,’” said Joseph Salvo, director of the DCP’s Population Division.

Previously, when DCP officials received such requests, they were required to manually tabulate the data and manually determine its reliability. Now, city planners or agency personnel can use Census FactFinder to experiment with the data on their own to determine how to optimize their initiatives.

“Our planners do a lot of work in areas of the city where they need to know about the local area characteristics,” said Salvo. “There are many situations where a local planner or frankly anyone who works in a city agency that’s delivering services needs to customize an area for a program, for evaluation of an existing program, or for potential distribution of resources. This system allows them to interactively define a study area and get information on the fly as they build that study area.”
The original version of Census FactFinder queried information only from the decennial Census, which in 2010 became limited to a “short form” survey including only sex, race, ethnicity and housing units. The revamped version of NYC Census FactFinder now features in-depth, annual ACS data on demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics. The ability to mine these data greatly enhances the ability of users to assess the needs of specific populations and neighborhoods, enabling them to research information such as household income, places of birth, English language proficiency, commuting patterns, health insurance coverage, vehicle availability, educational attainment, housing values, rent and much more for customized geographies.

Previously, planners were also limited to evaluating populations within previously defined areas, such as a community district or a Neighborhood Tabulation Area (smaller than a community district but larger than a Census tract.). But that didn’t always give planners the data they needed. Now, planners can choose whether they want to profile Census tracts or a Neighborhood Tabulation Area. After choosing the profile type, a Neighborhood Tabulation Area or specific tract can be selected by zooming in on the map. A drop-down menu then allows users to search for a location by address, intersection, place of interest, Census tract, subway station or neighborhood. Multiple Census tracts can be selected and planners can also create a search radius around a location to query.

Once a geographic area is selected, users can view the 2010 Census Profile tab for the full demographic profile or see how these data have changed in the selected area over the past decade, from 2000 to 2010. In addition to the content from the decennial Censuses, they can now choose the ACS 2009-2013 tab to access four sub-sections: demographics, social, economic and housing.

“Say you have a community center where you provide some sort of educational service,” said Salvo. “If you want to know more about the general area around it, you can append geographic areas to that initial area and aggregate the data as you go. You can then watch the profile change and look at the numbers as you build your area.”

If a user changes the geography of their query, the results are then automatically recalculated on the fly. DCP also added an additional utility that flags whether a search returns statistically meaningful data that can be used for research and service delivery planning.

“The app tells you when you have a large enough sample for statistical reliability purposes, so when it comes time to defend what you’re doing to the local community -- the way of distributing resources, for example -- you know the data is statistically reliable," Salvo said, adding that this means users can make sure they are on a firm foundation before they make any important decisions around resource distribution.

City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod noted that the application helps users ensure that their search results are reliable for the geographies they select, "thus strengthening their analysis and making their work more meaningful and more useful."

Salvo said the U.S. Census Bureau has a similar tool called American Fact Finder, but that tool can’t aggregate data. “They are headed in that direction," he said, "but it will take a while because the data they deal with involves the entire country."

As of now, said Salvo, no other entity he knows of provides free access to complete ACS profiles for custom geographies, including information on data reliability.

“There are tons of data out there today,” he said. “The issue is how you bring it to bear on the problems you have to solve. This tool gives us the ability to take data and use it in the most effective way possible.”

Census FactFinder is also publicly available to anyone who wants to take on a project requiring knowledge of the New York City population. And DCP said it will regularly update the application to enable researchers, communities and decision-makers to query the most up-to-date socioeconomic and housing information available.

“We want to maximize the effectiveness of our outreach programs, delivery of services, etc., and determine how best to tailor our services to help in a particular neighborhood,” said Salvo. “This tool can help users figure out what to do with their resources and, most importantly, optimize those limited resources to make sure we as a city get the biggest bang for our buck.”