Census site makes quick work of stats

Census site makes quick work of stats

BY PATRICIA DAUKANTAS | GCN STAFF

How many people live in Oregon? An open-source Web site at quickfacts.census.gov serves up an instant answer: 3.42 million.

The Census Bureau designed State and County QuickFacts to present population data without the overwhelming detail of other Census Web sites, said Paul T. Zeisset, marketing director for the bureau's Economic Census Division.

'Other places are trying to be the definitive resource, so they have to present all the raw numbers,' he said.

The www.census.gov site has multiple data sets for each U.S. county, 'but in the past you needed to go to 10 different places to get all the data,' Zeisset said. The tables of statistics look daunting to an inexperienced visitor.

The bureau started developing QuickFacts based on users' requests for a one-stop site with easy-to-decipher statistics about a particular state or county. Now, QuickFacts is becoming one of the chief pathways into the rest of Census' data, Zeisset said.


QuickFacts creators, from left, Rachael LaPorte Taylor, Linda Morris, Paul Zeisset, Lisa Nyman and Mark Wallace made the statistical site easy enough for schoolchildren to use.
QuickFacts has the most recent figures in each data category, including Census 2000 tallies for such categories as overall population of states and counties. But some subsets of data from Census 2000'notably household statistics from the long forms sent to one in six residences'won't be released until next year.

That's why QuickFacts still contains data from the 1990 Census about household income and education levels, supplemented with 1997 estimates. Data on business activity comes from other bureau surveys taken during the 1990s.

Selecting a state from a clickable outline map or drop-down menu brings up a no-frills table that compares population and business statistics for a chosen state against corresponding data for the entire nation. From each state's page, users can pull up similar tables for counties via three methods: clicking on a state map, using a drop-down menu or searching on the name of a community.

User-friendly

The bureau found that many Web visitors wanted information about a community but didn't know what county it was in, said Lisa Nyman, a senior Internet technology architect at the bureau.

Nyman and her colleagues built a 'Locate a City by Place Name' function that reveals, for example, that Utica is in Oneida County, N.Y.

If a user knows a city name but not the state, the function can generate a list of all counties and states that have a locality with that name.

To supplement the basic data, a 'More Data for This Area' button takes users to links about the selected state or county.

The links connect to detailed Census Web resources, as well as to the FedStats.gov page of statistical data from other agencies.

QuickFacts went live in mid-September. Initially it had the 1998 population estimates, then the 1999 estimates, and finally Census 2000 results went up in March.

Nyman's colleagues created the site using the Perl freeware scripting language and the open-source MySQL database. The server runs Apache Web Server freeware under Linux.

Nyman said applications created with the software set are dubbed LAMP, for Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl.

The QuickFacts team used open-source software mainly because they're used to it. 'It's how we do the bulk of development out of my office,' Nyman said, because it supports fairly rapid prototyping.

A committee of representatives from several Census divisions guides the QuickFacts project, Zeisset said. The project has been making do without its own line item in the Census budget, but it probably will have to seek funds for day-to-day maintenance.

The QuickFacts project recently won the 2001 Census Bureau Director's Award for Innovation. And, because of the simple user interface, other content providers'such as America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.'have occasionally promoted QuickFacts on their sites, Zeisset said.

The portals have 'done a couple of cutesy things,' he said, such as inviting users to look up 'macho states' with the largest male populations. AOL's Government Guide has a link to QuickFacts.

During March and April, the site averaged 60,000 to 70,000 page views per day. Its busiest month was February, when 450,000 pages were served in one day.

The next release of Census 2000 data, including household and home ownership statistics, is set for late this month or early next.

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