- ‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare. ‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.
Search Tools and Datafinders: Which to Use
An exploration of the various U.S. statistics websites yields a bewildering list of search engines and help sites. DataFerrett is specific to a type of data, and the Census current data Database Search covers the economic indicators, but the rest are fairly inclusive. I suggest that you try each one using the same very limited topic to find the one that suits your search style and expected results. Because of the amount of Census and other data, none of these tools will be a quick search; just remember that quick and dirty searches usually lead to unsatisfactory results. American FactFinder, the first datafinder described below, does have a quick search feature, so if you are in a hurry it would be a good starting place. Perhaps the simplest starting point is the Census website How to Find the Latest Business Data, where a chart of available information shows what years and geographic breakdowns are available.
This post covers American FactFinder, Census Bureau search engines (including the current data Database Search), FedStats, and Data Ferrett.
The most comprehensive search engine for U.S. government statistics is American FactFinder. It will help you find Census data from the Decennial Census, American Community Survey, Puerto Rico Community Survey, Population Estimates Program, Economic Census, and Annual Economic Surveys. (See the list below for other agency datasets.) American FactFinder provides data from the lowest level of geography (blocks), up to the biggest variety of geographic entities—everything from zip code tabulation areas, to state legislative districts to Census tracts. For a complete and understandable listing of the sources, abbreviations and datasets go to the American FactFinder Guide provided for students by the library at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There you will find definitions for such terms as block group, Census tracts, and thematic map. There are clear directions for selecting search terms, searching, and downloading. Many other university libraries have search guides and tutorials online for specific needs: finding local data, interfacing with GIS, and making maps for example.
Find other guides by searching in Google for American Factfinder. Some of the more useful guides are:
Before you start it is a good idea to check what version of your internet browser works most efficiently. Older versions and unusual browsers are likely to make your search more difficult. Also, just like USAspending.gov, FactFinder has a lot of data: obtaining the statistics you want often requires many steps and lots of clicking.
FactFinder includes datasets from the following U.S. government agencies:
- Commerce—Bureau of Census
- Labor—Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Agriculture—Economic Research Service and National Agriculture Statistics Service
- Education—National Center for Education Statistics
- Energy—Energy Information Administration
- Justice—Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Health and Human Services— National Center for Health Statistics
- Treasury, IRS—Statistics of Income Division
- Transportation—Bureau of Transportation Statistics
(Note that numerous government agencies are not on this list—Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, EPA, Education, State, etc.)
How to Use American FactFinder
The Census Bureau introduced an improved Factfinder recently. According to the U.S. Census blog “the new American Factfinder was designed to provide easy access to Census Bureau data for non-expert users without sacrificing detail for expert users. It will allow all users easier and more efficient access to data by simplifying search and navigation, using topic, geography or industry based search and navigation terms. Users no longer need to know the content of various Census Bureau surveys in order to quickly find the appropriate information.” ( Random Samplings http://blogs.census.gov/censusblog/)
The best way to jump into using this tool is to take the virtual tour. The tour covers the use of Quick Start, not the advanced search features. Using Quick Start will help you get familiar with the search engine and the possible results. As you are learning, keep in mind that there are two main types of statistical results that you will retrieve: tables and maps. Output can be manipulated, customized, and saved.
Learn more about FactFinder features by using the extensive help pages. These cover such topics as search strategy, explanation of error messages, table modification, downloading, and viewing tables as maps.
Searching for Data
There are two primary ways to search for data in American FactFinder: the quick start method and the searching-by-categories method. Help pages and tutorials cover a variety of topics.
Topic filters available are:
- People – Characteristics of people such as age, and sex
- Survey – Characteristics of data surveys such as program, year, and survey name
- Data – Characteristics of the data such as data set, and product types
- Housing – Characteristics of housing such as count and owner costs
- Business and Industry – Measurements of businesses and industries such as expenses, capital expenditures and assets
- Business and Industry – Industry code filters—by name of industry, or number