Social Explorer is a powerful, web-based tool for displaying geographic U.S. census data that can be used for student research projects and presentations. A wealth of data is available in the free version, but even more is available if you or your institution subscribes. This page displays the census data by year that is available for the free and subscription-based versions. Unfortunately you have to fill out a form and share lots of personal information to see the pricing schedule, so I have no idea how much a subscription actually costs.

The slideshow feature is the most visually powerful element I have discovered so far. Predefined slideshows are available, or you can make your own. As examples, this map slideshow reflects the decreasing percentage of white residents in New York City’s Bronx, Queens, and Kings neighborhoods between 1910 and 2000, while this map slideshow reflects the increasing percentage of black residents in those neighborhoods during the same timeperiod.

To create a slideshow, when viewing a map click on CREATE A SLIDESHOW in the lower right corner of your browser window. When you see a map you’d like to capture and make into a “slide,” simply drag it to one of the empty slide timeline holders at the bottom of the screen. Click the PLAY button in the lower right corner to start your slideshow. The free version does not appear to permit saving, so I’m guessing that is one of the perks you get as a subscriber.

You can zoom in on any part of the United States and build a slideshow with data of your choice. I experimented by zooming in on the Oklahoma City area, and watching the population density maps change from 1940 through 2000. While all census data is not available in the free public version of Social Explorer, many data sets are which provide rich possibilities for exploration and discovery. I also experimented with the data under “education” for dropouts. It is not clear to me (because I’ve not yet done much research and reading on my own in this area) how “dropouts” are measured by the U.S. census, but this visual display certainly does show trends and patterns. These sorts of resources would be GREAT for challenging students to make connections and develop higher order thinking skills when interpreting data.

As an undergraduate student studying relatively rudimentary GIS technologies, I remember being amazed by how much information can be effectively communicated visually when data is connected to maps. GIS technologies have come a long way since the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it is exciting to see powerful tools like those in Social Explorer be accessible to anyone armed with an Internet-connected computer and a web browser. The US Census Bureau makes its data available via “American FactFinder,” but it seems more empowering and immediately gratifying to use a web-based, graphic mapping tool like Social Explorer to display data and compare results.

Sponsors for Social Explorer include the New York Times and the National Science Foundation. I found this tool using the New York Times’ Virtual Explorer website ( that was shared in the November 2006 issue of MacAddict (on page 23 at the bottom) which has, incidentally, changed its name to Mac Life. (I guess the word “addict” in their title suggested that using a Mac was not a mainstream or universally desirable thing. 🙂

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One Response to Visualizing census data, patterns and trends

  1. llary52 says:

    Very cool. Thanks for sharing – I never heard of this tool before. If you like this, you might be interested in the Gapminder product/service which was recently acquired by Google: or It’s one of the more interesting ways of visualizing multiple data over time.

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