In a few weeks, the first detailed results of the decennial U.S. Census will start pouring from Census headquarters in Suitland, Md., and a Panic Season will commence in unsuspecting newsrooms. What are these numbers? Where can I download them? Didn’t we just get new Census data? Can you tell me whether Census counts X or Y or Z?
On deadline, that’s a lot of potential headache. I know you want to avoid the pain, so take some advice from a guy who survived reporting on Census 2000: prep is everything.
Here are five steps you can take now:
1. Know your Census products: These days, “Census data” means more than it did a decade ago. The advent of the American Community Survey — a survey of about 3 million households each year that replaced the old Census long form — means we get annual estimates in between the full decennial counts. And the ACS comes in three flavors: single-year data plus three- and five-year aggregates, each providing different levels of geographic granularity.
The regular releases of ACS data make Census seem more routine these days, but the data coming out soon are different. These aren’t estimates from a sample — they’re the complete counts taken in spring 2010 via a short questionnaire sent to every household in America.
This first wave of Census 2010 data, coming state-by-state in February and March, are the Redistricting Data (P.L. 94-171) summary files. They’ll contain the basic counts of population by race for every state, county and place in America, all the way down to the smallest geographies, called blocks. As its name implies, these data will be used to redraw the boundaries of legislative, electoral and other districts in states — a process journalists will want to keep tabs on.
Later, in the summer, Summary File 1 will offer more detailed data on age, sex, households, families, and housing units — again from complete counts. Then, in the fall, we’ll see the next release of ACS data. Got all that?