Cracking open census data

The Census Bureau's job is not only to collect data on the nation's residents and economy, but also to share that information with the public so it can be used to help guide policymakers, inform research and support businesses.

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It sounds straightforward, but finding ways to provide the information in useful formats has been challenging.

CitySDK was conceived as a productivity tool for developers to use Census' three main application programming interfaces, which access statistics, geocoding and geographic shapefiles for mapping. It speeds development time by 75 percent, taking what developers used to spend 10 to 12 hours on and enabling them to knock it out in three or four.

With CitySDK, Census officials wanted to provide access to the data as quickly as possible, create interoperability between datasets and offer a toolbox for developers, said Jeff Meisel, the bureau's chief marketing officer.

Making it easy for developers to build software with the bureau's data means they can "start a company…or build a civic tech application or social good application," he said.

A single developer spent 12 weeks on CitySDK before releasing a JavaScript library in June 2015. Since then, the bureau has been working with the open-source community and the Commerce Department's Data Service on the second version, which runs on Amazon's cloud and supports any programming language, not just JavaScript.

That cooperative approach proved crucial because it was Census' first open-source project. "Co-creating with the community and bringing the citizens directly into the design process [have] been really instrumental in this project being a success," Meisel said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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