Monday, December 19, 2016

Exploring Census Data

I originally wrote this post for a software company’s blog in 2014. This company was bought out and recently their blog and website have been removed from the web permanently. I am reposting it here for posterity. 

One of the questions I am most often asked by the public is also one that the public least understands: "What is the crime rate?" Crime rate is a ratio of the number of crimes reported for a given population.

I previously touched on how to calculate crime rates. One important element in calculating crime rate is population estimates. So in this post were going to look at data available from the US Census Bureau's excellent website Census.gov.

When most people think of Census data, they think of the decennial population census that comes around every 10 years. But the Census Bureau does more than just count citizens every 10 years. They also provide annual population estimates and also break out demographic data such as age, occupation, housing, education, language and other data.

Let's look at one of my favorite Census tools, American Fact Finder.

Probably the easiest way to start using Fact Finder is to type the name of the area you are looking at in the Community Facts search box. This can be a state, county, city or even zip code. This will then display an interactive dialog that will allow you to choose various types of demographic data about the area you queried. You can pick the selections from the menu on the left to explore the different categories for the area you are looking at.

Once you select a category, you'll notice that there are listings of various tables where you can dig even further into the data. For example, if you select Age from the menu on the left, your given choices of various tables that contain more detailed data about that demographic. Once you navigate to those tables, you have options to modify, print or download those tables.

Want to know just how many teenagers are in your community? Select the "Age and Sex" entry under the 2012 American Community Survey and you'll get a table with estimates of the ages and genders of persons in your community.

So just what is this kind of demographic data good for? Well, for starters, it can help you to understand the make up of your community, especially as it compares to other communities. I work in Killeen, TX. The average age of people in Killeen is 27.2 years old. The next largest city in the county where I work has an average age of 37.1 years old. A 10 year difference in average age could probably explain a difference in the prevalence of certain types of crimes in communities that are only about 25 miles apart.

When I first started working at my agency over 20 years ago, we had only two Spanish speaking officers. What was really odd was that we had many more German speaking officers (about 10) than we did Spanish speaking officers. We're right next to Fort Hood and at the time, plenty of our officers were either former soldiers or dependents who had spent plenty of time stationed in Germany. A few were even trained as German linguists for the Army.

Looking at the Census data, we can see that now, just over 14% of the citizens in Killeen speak Spanish. With that number of Spanish speaking citizens, only two Spanish speaking officers wouldn't cut it. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then and we have quite a number of Spanish speaking officers at my agency now.

Data found in Fact Finder can help your agency understand the citizens you serve and understand what some of their needs might be. Large teen population? Maybe some of your efforts should focus on teen outreach. Large veteran population? Maybe a veteran diversion program for minor offenses is worth looking into.

Understanding the makeup of your community can help you to serve the community better by understanding the needs of the community. It can also help you to understand why some crimes may be more prevalent than communities of similar size.

What questions would you try to answer with this data?

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