Dashboard showcases local-level census data

Takoma Park built an open-source platform called Data Explorer that provides Maryland officials and residents with census information specific to the Washington, DC suburb.

“When I first came to town, it seemed like sometimes when people were trying to find or refer to data, they would use an older report…or use different sources of census data online,” said Daniel Powers , Senior Data of Takoma Park and policy analyst and creator of Data Explorer. “I thought it would be valuable to try to consolidate in one place a lot of important information about the city and its residents and differences that existed within the city to contextualize that information by comparing it to Maryland and Montgomery County.”

Data Explorer (first reported on Technical.ly) is an online platform presenting census data from the American Community Survey from 2016 to 2020 as both text narratives and interactive graphs. The data is organized into tabs and sub-tabs based on various demographics such as housing, income, poverty, education or internet access.

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Powers said he used R programming scripts to retrieve and process ACS data for a specific year, then an R markdown document prepares visualizations for an HTML page.

The scripts process and load the data, so updating the data only requires updating the year, he said. For example, if you update the ACS from 2015 to 2019 in the scripts, “you just have to change it to 2020 and then hopefully next year it’ll just be 2021 and the following year 2022.”

City workers write the narrative and add numeric values, which the program automatically updates. For example, if a number from a given year changes from 15% to 20%, the R markdown document will reflect the change without the city having to rewrite it, Powers said. However, if the narrative with the new numbers no longer makes sense, employees would have to revise them manually.

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The dashboard came in handy for city officials as they created a spending plan for COVID relief funds. Takoma Park received $17.5 million through the American Rescue Plan Act at the same time Data Explorer was being built, Powers said. The information provided by the platform helped ensure that proposals were tailored to residents’ needs.

“We ended up running a direct cash assistance program,” Powers said. In setting the income limit for the program, “It was helpful to know that the majority of households in the city making less than $50,000 experience a housing cost burden,” he said.

Additionally, the platform facilitates the assessment of individual characteristics and demographics of Takoma Park residents without having to refer to the census website, which can be difficult to navigate and local information to find and download. For example, the dashboard can provide the number of residents who have health insurance and a breakdown of that information by race and age, Powers said, which users may not even know is available on the census site.

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“The goal is that instead of having to search through a series of unconnected tables to find this information, you can find it in one place, with the text guiding you through each table, with the option to play around with the table yourself if you… want,” Powers said.

The dashboard’s code will be posted on the city’s Github page so other agencies can do similar projects “without too much work,” Powers said.

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