Getting census data over time

A former student recently asked about getting census data over time, in particular for smaller geographies like block groups. My GIS course I teach students the manual way of downloading data year-by-year from the FTP site. That is partially for pedagogical reasons though, I want students to realize the number of variables (there are so many) and how the data is stored by the census for the American Community Survey.

But Census now has a web api, where you can query the data. So if you are familiar with R or python programming, you can get the data in a bit easier fashion. You just need to know the years + census geographies + variables. I have notes on variables I often use for crim research, but going to the FTP site you can find the big documents or the excel templates.

I have honestly avoided these APIs in my workflows for several years, as my experience with the Census geocoding API was quite flaky, but I have not had the same problems with the APIs for querying the data. Here are examples in R (tidycensus library) and python (census library) of downloading several variables over the 2014-2019 span.

#############################
# R code
library(tidycensus)

# sign up for census key#
# https://api.census.gov/data/key_signup.html
census_api_key(key='????yourkeyhere????')

# place to store results and combine them
years <- 2014:2019
res <- vector("list",length(years))
names(res) <- years

# variables that you want
#        Tot Pop     White non-Hisp  FemHeadHouse  FamPoverty
vars <- c('B03001_001','B03002_003','B11003_016','B17010_002')

# loop over years, save data
# could also apply county filter, see help(get_acs)
# using smaller Deleware just for example
for (y in years){
    # download data
    ld <- as.data.frame(get_acs(year = y,
                                geography='cbg',
                                survey='acs5',
                                variables = vars,
                                state="DE"))
    # reshape long to wide
    ld2 <- reshape(ld,
                   idvar="GEOID",
                   timevar="variable",
                   direction="wide",
                   drop=c("NAME","moe"))
    # insert into list and add in year
    res[[y]] <- ld2
    res[[y]]$year <- y
}

# Combining the data frames together for final analysis
combo <- do.call("rbind",res)
head(combo) # can see B03001_001 is missing for block groups
summary(combo)
#############################

So in R you can ask for a variable, but if it is not available you will just get missing. So you need to make sure the variables you ask for are available over the time span.

The python census library will just straight up give you an error if the variable is not available. Also you need to specify E/M estimates, not just the base variable.

#############################
# Python code

from census import Census
import pandas as pd

key = '????yourkeyhere????'
c = Census(key)
# will get error with unknown variable
# need to specify E/M for estimate or margin of error
vars = ['B03002_003E','B11003_016E','B17010_002E']
res = []

for y in range(2014,2019+1):
    # '10' is Delaware, first '*' is county, second '*' is specific
    # geoid for a block group
    lk = c.acs5.state_county_blockgroup(vars, '10', "*", "*",year=y)
    ld = pd.DataFrame(lk)
    ld['year'] = y
    res.append(ld)

combo = pd.concat(res,axis=0)
combo.head()
#############################

(Initial post had an error not passing in year into the download function, now the two results are the same.)

For making reproducible scripts, instead of putting your API key into the code, a common way is to create a config file with the API key (don’t upload the config file to github), and then read in the config file into your script. (Another way is to use environment variables as secrets, I think the config is easier for people to grok though.)

Another friend recently referred me to requests-cache library. It is a good idea to only download the data locally once, then use that local data. No need to requery the data every time you update your code. Easiest approach is to just have a special script to download the data and save it (in a database or csv files would work here), and then later scripts work with that local data.

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1 Comment

  1. Jeff Boggs

     /  June 2, 2022

    Thanks for the procedure. I use Canadian mainly, and either manually download the data from the Stats Can site or from the CHASS site out of the University of Toronto. In theory, we can now download the entire 2016 Canadian Census of Population as one file, but it is too large to open in MS-Excel and I haven’t found software to open and manipulate multiple dimension data sets (though I’ve heard Open Refine _might_ do this).

    Anyway, with your procedure you’ve provided some large breadcrumbs to follow to see if something similar would work with the Stats Can API.

    Regards,
    Jeff

    Reply

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