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Census Data is cool?

At least that’s what everyone discovered at last night’s Data Innovation DC's MeetUp. The U.S Census Bureau came in to "reverse pitch" their petabytes of data to a group of developers, data scientists and data-preneurs at Cooley LLP in Downtown DC.

First off, let's offer a massive thanks to the US Census Bureau that sent five of their best and brightest to come engage the community long into the evening and late night hours. Who specifically did they send? Just take a look at the impressive list below:

census_contact

Editor's note - a special thank you to Logan Powell who made this entire event possible.

And they brought the fantastic Jeremy Carbaugh jcarbaugh [at] sunlightfoundation.com from the Sunlight Foundation, a company working on making census data (and other government data) interesting, fun, and mobile. They have this sweet app called Sitegeist. You give it a location and it gives you impressive stats such as the history of the place, how many people are baby making, or just living the bachelor lifestyle; it even connects to Yelp and wunderground too just in case you need the weather and a place to grab a brewski while you’re at it. Further, Eric at the Census bureau made a great point for everyone out there in real estate. You can use this app to show potential buyers how the demographics in the area have changed, good school districts, income levels, number of children per household, etc.. You know you’ll look good whipping out that tablet and showing them ;)

By the way, Sunlight created a very convenient python wrapper for the Census API; you can pip it off of PyPI and check out the source on github here (a round of applause for our sunlight folks!) Did I mention that they are a non-profit doing this with far less funding then many others out there?

Sitegeist is nice but exactly how accessible is the Census Data?  I am glad you asked. The census has two approaches, their American Fact Finder and API, both easy to use. The fact finder is good to just go ahead and peruse what you may find interesting before actually grabbing the data for yourself. The api is like the Twitter version 1 API. You get a key and use stateless HTTP GET requests to pull the data via the web. For those non-api folks, I’ll be posting a how-to shortly.

The census also has their own fun mobile app called Americas Economy.

Alright so we’ve got some data, we’ve got some ways to get it but what’s up with the reverse pitch thing? This was the best part as everyone had awesome ideas and ideations.

Some questions included:

Can we blend WorldBank and Federal Reserve Bank data to get meaningful results?

This came from a guy who was already building some nice apps around WB and Fed data. The general consensus was "yes," a lot of business value can come from that, but they need folks like us to come up with use-cases. So, thoughts? Please comment and tinker away.

What about the geospatial aspects of the data?

There were a lot of questions around the GIS mapping data and some problems with drilling down on the geo-spatial data down to block sizes or very small lots of land. People seem really interested in getting this data for things like understanding how diseases spread, patters of migration etc. The Census folks said that with the longer term surveys you can definitely get down to the block level but, because boundaries and borders can be defined differently across the nation, it is very difficult to normalize the data. Another use-case? A herculean effort? Hmm..food for thought. Also, shortly after the event, someone posted this on geo-normalization in Japan. Thanks Logan!

Editor's note: More information on US Census Grids can be found here.

How does Census data help commercial companies?

There was a great established use case where the Census helped Target Retail understand their demographic. That blew me away. The gov’t and a private retail company working to make a better profit, a better product? This definitely got my creative juices flowing, hopefully it will get everyone out there cogitating too.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgsdQxTv5kY

or, check out this case study from the National Association of Homebuilders:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBDmE5Nj0BY

and last but not least, an example of Census data helping disaster relief (not really commercial but Logan didn't get a chance to show all of his videos):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PaEu8-xH9LE

We finally had people talking about the importance of longitudinal studies.

What is different now for our nation in terms of demographics, culture, and geography from 20-30-50 years ago? Just imagine some really cool heat map or time series visualization of how Central Park in NY or Rock Creek in DC has changed…yes I am saying this so someone actually goes out and gives that one a go. Don’t worry you can take the credit ;)

Oh and I almost forgot due to obvious privacy issues a lot of the data is pre-processed so you can’t stalk your ex-boss/boyfriend/girlfriend. But, listen up! If you are in school and doing research and want to get your hands on the microdata, you can apply. Go to this link and check it out (http://www.census.gov/ces/rdcresearch/howtoapply.html). For those of you stuck on a thesis topic in any domain that may need information about society, cough cough, nudge nudge ...

So there you have it, these are the kinds of meetups happening at Data Innovation DC. I don’t know about you, but I definitely have a new perspective on government data. I also feel a little more inclined to open my door when those census folk drop by and give them real answers.

Please comment as you see fit and send me questions.  Also, JOIN Data Innovation DC and check out Data Community DC with all of other related data meetup groups. Let us know what kind of information you want to know about and what issues/topics you want us to address.

I’m new to the blog/review game but will continue to review meetups and some hot topics, podcasts etc. that I think need to be checked out. Let me know if you want me to speak to anything in particular.