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About Census Reporter

The United States Census Bureau provides a massive amount of data about the American people, covering topics from demographics to poverty rates to educational attainment, and at geographical levels ranging from the entire country down to city blocks. As a product of the federal government, the data is free to use. But for working journalists—especially those who don't have experience with the particulars of Census data—navigating these datasets on deadline can be a challenge.

Census Reporter's goal is to make it easier for journalists to write stories using Census data. Our focus is on the American Community Survey; we want to help people understand what the survey covers and help them quickly find data from places they care about. Census Reporter received funding from the Knight News Challenge, and primary development took place from March 2013 through June 2014.

The Census Reporter website includes three primary types of pages: geographical profiles, which provide an overview of data indicators from a particular place; data comparisons, which use tabular, map and distribution formats to show information from a table across a group of geographies; and topical overviews, which document the concepts and tables the ACS uses to cover specific subject areas.

In This Guide

Setting up for local development

Census Reporter is an open-source project, so not only is the data free to use, so is the code. Developers in South Africa forked this repository to build Wazi, for example, a site exploring South African data. We'd love it if you'd fork this repository, too, and maybe you even have features you'd like to contribute back!

Here's what you need to know to get a local version of Census Reporter up and running. These instructions assume you're using virtualenv and virtualenvwrapper to manage your development environments.

First, clone this repository to your machine and move into your new project directory:

>> git clone
>> cd <your cloned repo dir>

Create the virtual environment for your local project, activate it and install the required libraries:

>> mkvirtualenv census --no-site-packages
>> workon census
>> pip install -r requirements.txt

With your development environment still active, make sure it has the path settings it will need:

>> add2virtualenv ./censusreporter
>> add2virtualenv ./censusreporter/apps

And make sure your development environment knows the proper DJANGO_SETTINGS_MODULE by creating a postactivate script ...

>> cdvirtualenv bin
>> touch postactivate

... and then using your favorite editor to add these two lines to your new postactivate script:


Save and close the file. Reactivate your development environment so postactivate gets triggered, then fire up your local Census Reporter:

>> deactivate
>> workon census
>> cd <your cloned repo dir>
>> python runserver

Hurray! Your local copy of Census Reporter will be hitting our production data sources, so you should be able to search and browse just like you would on the live website. If you'd like to go a step further, you can run the API locally, and even load the entire Postgres database locally, as well. But if you're primarily interested in adding features to the Census Reporter website or just seeing how it works, the instructions above should get you going.

Note for people who wish to develop for Census Reporter

If you are running the django server from within the vagrant box, provide the localhost explicitly

>> python runserver

The application can now be accessed via localhost:8000 on your browser

Getting data from our API (the basics)

As part of the Census Reporter project, we've loaded ACS data into a Postgres database to make queries significantly easier. The Census Reporter website gets information from this database using the API at For more extensive API documentation, see the census-api repository and README. Here is a basic introduction to the endpoints you're likely to use:

Show data

This endpoint does the heavy lifting for Census Reporter's profile and comparison pages. Given a release code, a table code, and a geography, it will return American Community Survey data. A common call to this endpoint might look like:

This will return data for Spokane, WA, from the "Sex By Age" table, using the "latest" ACS release available. In this case, "latest" determines not only the year of release, but also the estimate used. The ACS provides three datasets per year: the 1-year, which uses 12 months of data to arrive at estimates for areas with at least 65,000 residents; the 3-year, which uses 36 months of data and covers areas with at least 20,000 people; and the 5-year, which uses 60 months of data and covers areas of all sizes.

For this API endpoint, "latest" is a shortcut that asks for the most current estimate from the most recent release year, favoring 1-year over 3-year over 5-year data. Because Spokane, WA, has more than 65,000 residents, the API call above would return data from the ACS 2012 1-year release.

You can ask for a specific release and estimate by exchanging "latest" for a release code that looks like acs{year}_{estimate}yr. So a call to:

... would return data for Spokane, WA, from the "Sex By Age" table, using the ACS 2012 5-year release.

You can ask for multiple tables at a time by passing a comma-separated table_ids list:,B01002&geo_ids=16000US5367000

And you can ask for multiple geographies by passing a comma-separated geo_ids list:,B01002&geo_ids=16000US5367000,16000US1714000

One particularly common use case is to request data for all geographies of a particular class within a particular parent geography, e.g. "compare all counties in Washington state." Identifying each county's geoID individually would be unwieldy, so we added a shortcut for this type of request. Your comma-separated list of geo_ids can contain one or more items that use the pipe character to describe a comparison set like this: {child_summary_level}|{parent_geoid}.

The Census uses summary levels to identify classes of geographies (like counties or school districts or census tracts), and each one is represented by a three-digit code. For this API endpoint, "all counties in Washington state" can be represented as 050|04000US53, so a request to:|04000US53

... would return "Sex By Age" data for all 39 counties in Washington. Great? Great! But hold on, let's talk about this for a second.

Specifying "latest" as the release parameter means we're asking for the most current estimate from the most recent release. Although some of the counties in Washington state are large enough to be in the 1-year release, many are not. Several counties fall into the 3-year release, and several more are small enough to only exist in the 5-year release. Data from different estimates should never be compared, so the API will return data from the lowest common denominator: in this case, the 2012 5-year release.

You won't have to guess which release you're getting data from, though; the API response from this endpoint will include four objects:

  • release: metadata about the ACS release that provided the data in this response
  • tables: metadata, including title and column information, about the tables requested
  • data: the actual data for the geographies requested, including estimates and margins of error, nested according to geoID > table code > estimate|error > column code
  • geography: metadata, including geoID and name, about the geographies requested

The entire response for the "all counties in Washington" example above looks like this; below is an excerpt so you can see what to expect.

    "release": {
        "id": "acs2012_5yr",
        "name": "ACS 2012 5-year",
        "years": "2008-2012"
    "tables": {
        "B01001": {
            "title": "Sex by Age",
            "universe": "Total Population",
            "denominator_column_id": "B01001001",
            "columns": {
                "B01001001": {
                    "name": "Total:",
                    "indent": 0
                "B01001002": {
                    "name": "Male:",
                    "indent": 1
                "B01001049": {
                    "name": "85 years and over",
                    "indent": 2
    "data": {
        "05000US53001": {
            "B01001": {
                "estimate": {
                    "B01001001": 18575,
                    "B01001002": 9453,
                    "B01001049": 214
                "error": {
                    "B01001001": 0,
                    "B01001002": 24,
                    "B01001049": 53
    "geography": {
        "04000US53": {
            "name": "Washington"
        "05000US53047": {
            "name": "Okanogan County, WA"
        "05000US53035": {
            "name": "Kitsap County, WA"

Note that Washington state's data is also included in this API response. When you ask for a set of geographies—in this case, 050|04000US53—the API will automatically include the parent geography's data so you can perform comparisons.

Get geography metadata

This endpoint provides basic information about a specific geography, including name, summary level, land area, and population. A common call to this endpoint might look like:

This request uses the geoID for Spokane, WA, and returns this JSON:

    "geometry": null,
    "type": "Feature",
    "properties": {
        "awater": 1991595,
        "display_name": "Spokane, WA",
        "simple_name": "Spokane",
        "sumlevel": "160",
        "population": 208040,
        "full_geoid": "16000US5367000",
        "aland": 178021482

If you append a querystring paramater geom=true to your request, the API response's geometry will include geographical coordinates suitable for mapping.

This endpoint returns Tiger 2012 data for all but one class of geography: congressional districts. Redistricting after the 2010 Decennial Census changed these boundaries, and some states gained or lost entire districts. If you request metadata for a congressional district, the API will return Tiger 2013 data in order to accurately represent redistricting.

Get geography parents

This endpoint takes a specific geography and provides metadata for it, along with a list of parent geographies that contain it. A common call to this endpoint might look like:

... which returns results that include name, geoID, summary level, geography class, and percentage of coverage:

    "parents": [
            "sumlevel": "160",
            "relation": "this",
            "coverage": 100,
            "display_name": "Spokane, WA",
            "geoid": "16000US5367000"
            "sumlevel": "050",
            "relation": "county",
            "coverage": 100,
            "display_name": "Spokane County, WA",
            "geoid": "05000US53063"
            "sumlevel": "310",
            "relation": "CBSA",
            "coverage": 100,
            "display_name": "Spokane, WA Metro Area",
            "geoid": "31000US44060"
            "sumlevel": "040",
            "relation": "state",
            "coverage": 100,
            "display_name": "Washington",
            "geoid": "04000US53"
            "sumlevel": "010",
            "relation": "nation",
            "coverage": 100,
            "display_name": "United States",
            "geoid": "01000US"

Geography search

This endpoint returns metadata for geographies with names that match a text string. A common call to this endpoint might look like:

... which returns results that include each matching geography's summary level, geoID and name:

  "results": [
      "sumlevel": "160",
      "full_geoid": "16000US5367000",
      "full_name": "Spokane, WA"
      "sumlevel": "160",
      "full_geoid": "16000US5367167",
      "full_name": "Spokane Valley, WA"
      "sumlevel": "160",
      "full_geoid": "16000US3469810",
      "full_name": "Spotswood, NJ"
      "sumlevel": "795",
      "full_geoid": "79500US5310504",
      "full_name": "Spokane County (Outer)--Cheney City PUMA, WA"

You can limit the search to a particular set of summary levels by passing an optional, comma-separated list in a sumlevs argument. The Census Reporter website does this in most cases:,020,030,040,050,060,160,250,310,500,610,620,860,950,960,970

Table search

This endpoint returns metadata for tables with titles or column names that match a text string. A common call to this endpoint might look like:

... which would return metadata for matches that includes table name, table code, table universe and table topics. Column metadata is also included where they matched type is a column:

        "unique_key": "B25040",
        "universe": "Occupied Housing Units",
        "simple_table_name": "House Heating Fuel",
        "id": "B25040",
        "table_id": "B25040",
        "table_name": "House Heating Fuel",
        "type": "table",
        "topics": [
            "physical characteristics"
        "unique_key": "B25117",
        "universe": "Occupied Housing Units",
        "simple_table_name": "Tenure by House Heating Fuel",
        "id": "B25117",
        "table_id": "B25117",
        "table_name": "Tenure by House Heating Fuel",
        "type": "table",
        "topics": [
            "physical characteristics",
        "unique_key": "B24126|B24126441",
        "universe": "Full-time, Year-round Civilian Employed Female Population 16 Years and Over",
        "simple_table_name": "Detailed Occupation for the Full-time, Year-round Civilian Employed Female Population",
        "column_id": "B24126441",
        "table_id": "B24126",
        "id": "B24126441",
        "table_name": "Detailed Occupation for the Full-time, Year-round Civilian Employed Female Population 16 Years and Over",
        "type": "column",
        "topics": [
        "column_name": "Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic"

Matches against table names will appear first in the response, followed by matches against column names within tables. The unique_key value is a combination of table code and column code (if necessary), and is useful as a key for autocomplete libraries like Typeahead.

Profile pages

Geographical profile pages provide an overview of important Census data indicators for a particular place. We've divided these data points into five categories: Demographics, Economics, Families, Housing and Social. Each category includes a mix of figures and charts that help you understand what life is like in a community. Profiles also include comparative data, so you can consider statistics from a city, for example, in the context of the metro area and state they're in.

The Census Reporter website generates profile pages for geographies at the national and state levels all the way down to census tracts. If your browser supports geolocation, you can use your current location to easily profile any of the geographies that you're currently in.

The profile page back end

Each profile page requires queries against a few dozen Census tables. To lighten the database load, profile data has been pre-computed and stored as JSON in an Amazon S3 bucket, so most of these pages should never touch the API. When the Census Reporter app sees a profile request, the GeographyDetail view checks for flat JSON data first, and falls back to a profile generator if necessary.

The profile generator at does a number of things:

  • establishes a connection to the Census Reporter API
  • takes the geoID from the URL and uses the "geography parents" API endpoint to determine which geographies should be shown as comparative data
  • uses the "geography metadata" endpoint to get basic information about each parent as well as the requested geography
  • uses the "show data" endpoint to query each table necessary for the charts and figures on the page
    • When requesting the profiled geography's total population, a default ACS release is also stored. This lets us flag any data point that comes from a different release; there are cases where a place has a high enough population for the 1-year release, for example, but specific tables have smaller universes that force us to dip into 3-year or 5-year releases to find data.
    • In many cases, columns are added together for display purposes. For example, creating the "10-19" category in the profile page's age distribution chart requires adding together six columns from Table B01001: the male and female versions of "10 to 14 years," "15 to 17 years," and "18 and 19 years."
    • In many cases, a denominator column is used for division so we can display a percentage.
    • In some cases, data from more than one table is required. For example, determining a place's "Mean travel time to work" requires the total number of workers, found in Table B08006, as well as the aggregate minutes spent commuting, found in Table B08013.

If the profile generator is invoked, it returns a Python dictionary with this processed data from the API. The GeographyDetail view passes this into an enhance_api_data method to do a couple more things:

  • removes extraneous comparisons, limiting data to the profile geography plus at most two parent geographies
  • calculates index values, which are figures from the profile geography expressed as percentages of a parent geography's value. (These are ultimately used Madlib-style, for phrases like "a little less than the figure in Washington")
  • calculates margin of error ratios to determine which data points should be flagged as requiring extra care

Once this is done, GeographyDetail writes everything as flat JSON to an S3 bucket so this process never has to be repeated. Regardless of whether the data came straight from JSON or had to be generated, the GeographyDetail view's final job is to use SafeString() to hand everything to the template in a format suitable for use as Javascript variables.

This pattern—using a generator script to collect and shape data from multiple tables, then storing the results as flat JSON—is something that could be repeated for new Census Reporter features. We'd like to add deeper category profiles for each of the Demographics, Economics, Families, Housing and Social sections, for example, which could be done by copying and modifying the geo_profile method in

The profile page front end

The skeleton of the profile page you see on the Census Reporter website is created by a Django template. The map is filled in by one Javascript library: tilelayer.js, and the charts filled in by another: charts.js.

Profile map

The profile page uses Javascript to call the "geography metadata" endpoint, using the geom=true argument to get boundary coordinates for the chosen place. A tile layer then adds shapes of nearby geographies at the same summary level, which can be used to navigate to their corresponding profile pages. The map will also do some smart centering to account for the box full of place metadata in that part of the page.

Profile charts

The Django template for the profile page creates empty slots for each chart, which are filled on load by charts.js. These placeholders look something like:

<div class="column-half" id="chart-histogram-demographics-age-distribution_by_decade-total" data-stat-type="scaled-percentage" data-chart-title="Population by age range"></div>

The column-* class isn't really important here; that's just a structural setting that gives the block an appropriate amount of width that can be governed with media queries. What we really care about are the id and data-* attribute values. The data attributes provide a place to pass optional information into the chart constructor, and the id value tells the constructor what type of chart to draw and which data to use.

At the bottom of the profile page, we trigger all the charts at once. Profile data is assigned to a Javascript variable:

profileData = {{ profile_data_json }};

And we grab all the chart placeholders with:

chartContainers = $('[id^=chart-]')

The makeCharts() function then loops through those containers, empties each one of any contents, and builds the variables required for a chart:

chartDataKey = chartID.replace('chart-','').replace('alt-','')
chartDataID = chartDataKey.split('-') #temporary variable
chartType = gracefulType(chartDataID[0])
chartData = profileData[chartDataID[1]]
geographyData = profileData['geography']
Required variables

chartDataKey: This tells us everything we need to know to recreate this particular chart from a given set of profile data, and we'll use it to populate embed code if a user asks for it. In the example above, this value would be histogram-demographics-age-distribution_by_decade-total.

chartType: The first bit of our chartDataKey, in this case histogram, represents the type of chart we want. The charts.js library currently supports:

  • pie
  • column
  • grouped_column
  • histogram
  • bar
  • grouped_bar

You'll note that we actually pass this value through a function called gracefulType, which allows us to change chart types based on screen width. More on that in a moment.

chartData: The rest of our chartDataKey provides the path to the data that should fill this chart. We start by assigning this variable a top-level item from profileData, in this case demographics. Then we use a loop to drill down based on the rest of our keys: demographics > age > distribution_by_decade > total. That's where we'll find the data to pass into the chart constructor.

geographyData: We also reach into profileData for names and summary levels of the chosen place and its parent geographies.

Optional variables

Placeholder containers can also use data attributes to pass optional information to the chart constructor. Our example container uses data-stat-type and data-chart-title:

<div class="column-half" id="chart-histogram-demographics-age-distribution_by_decade-total" data-stat-type="scaled-percentage" data-chart-title="Population by age range"></div>

The makeCharts() function will recognize:

data-chart-title: A title to place above the chart elements, passed to the chart constructor as chartChartTitle. Defaults to null, although most charts on Census Reporter's profile pages do assign a value here.

data-initial-sort: Used only by pie charts. Determines which category to highlight when the chart is initialized. A placeholder container with data-initial-sort="-value" will display the highest data value in the chart on load. Otherwise the first value in the chart will serve as the default state.

data-stat-type: Provides formatting hints for the chart's language and display. Standard chart behavior may be overriden with these values:

  • percentage: Adds a "%" character after figures in the chart. Sets chart domain to 0-100. Uses "rate" in comparison sentences.
  • scaled-percentage: Does the same things as "percentage," but also scales the chart so that the highest category value takes up the full vertical space available.
  • dollar: Adds a "$" character before figures in the chart. Uses "amount" in comparison sentences.

data-qualifier: Adds a trailing line below the chart, prepended with an "*" character. This is useful when charts require a little extra context. For example, the profile page's "Race & Ethnicity" column chart adds this explanation: "Hispanic includes respondents of any race. Other categories are non-Hispanic."

Responsive design

The charts on Census Reporter's profile pages are responsive to browser width. They use a combination of CSS media queries and Javascript to accommodate various screen sizes. Media queries take care of changes like column widths and legend placements, and they help arrange the interactive hovercards that provide extra data when a user mouses over or taps a chart element.

Javascript comes into play so we can completely change chart types that won't read well at certain widths. There are a couple functions at the bottom of the profile template that make this happen:

lazyRedrawCharts: This function updates window.browserWidth and window.browserHeight variables whenever a page is resized, then triggers makeCharts() to redraw any charts on the page according to their new available widths. (This is why makeCharts() empties out the contents of each container first. So they can be filled again, maybe even with a different chart format.) Realistically, this most likely gets triggered by a user turning a phone or tablet from portrait to landscape orientation, but just in case, the redraw is debounced to avoid a crazy number of events firing off.

var lazyRedrawCharts = _.debounce(function() {
    window.browserWidth = document.documentElement.clientWidth;
    window.browserHeight = document.documentElement.clientHeight;
}, 50);

gracefulType: This function checks window.browserWidth, and if it's too narrow to reasonably display a column chart, flips it to a bar chart. This is called by each chart inside the makeCharts() function, which is triggered on page load as well as resize thanks to lazyRedrawCharts.

var gracefulType = function(chartType) {
    if (browserWidth <= 640) {
        if (chartType == 'column' || chartType == 'histogram') {
            return 'bar'
        } else if (chartType == 'grouped_column') {
            return 'grouped_bar'
    return chartType

Between media queries and this Javascript, charts should be useful on phones as much as desktops.

Data comparison pages

Tabular view, map view, distribution view. Docs soon.


Census Reporter is a Knight News Challenge-funded project to make it easier for journalists to write stories using information from the U.S. Census bureau.