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A coal miner earning $540 a year lived near downtown Boulder, Colorado in 1940. One of his neighbours, a cook at a frat house, earned a little more: $770. If you live in Boulder, as I do, you’d know that even adjusted for inflation that kind of pay wouldn’t cover rent here in 2014. Clearly this town has changed a lot – something any longtime local will tell you.

I learned this, and a lot of other fascinating things, by exploring census data for my town. Here’s how you can do your own research – it’s easy, I promise.

I’m going to focus on a couple of tools based on US census data, but I’d love to learn about tools from other countries. Share anything you might find in the comments below, okay?

CensusReporter: Learn About Your City

It’s really hard to make data digestible, but this site does the job. Just type in the name of your town and you can start scrolling through all kinds of census data.

censusreporter-map

You’ll see charts that let you absorb the information at a glance, along with comparisons to regional and state numbers.

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Sometimes you’ll find things that might surprise you. Boulder, by reputation, is a city where biking to work is common – but even here half of all people drive alone to work.

censusreporter-bike

Yes, the number of people biking to work is double the state average – but it seems like this could be higher, seeing how much infrastructure for biking exists here.

Scrolling through the information offered by default is a great start, but you can also search for other reports. I was interested in self-employment income in my town, and found out that it’s relatively high.

censusreporter-selfemployed

You can find lots of tidbits like this, so dive in. Let me know the most interesting thing you can find.

Census Tool: Dig Through Decades Of Data

The census makes its numbers public, but did you know that 72-years after each census every single form filled out during the process becomes public information? If you’ve ever researched your family tree, you know how valuable this can be, but it’s also fascinating if you’re just a curious person.

For example: have you ever wondered about the people who used to live in your house? Maybe you found a name carved into a base board somewhere, and wondered who that person was – and what they did. You can look this up, believe it or not.

Sadly there’s not really a digitized version of this old census data – just scans you can download. This makes searching hard, but if you know the address you want to check out you can learn a lot.

Head to Census Tool. This site makes it easier to search sites offering images of census forms. You can add an address:

censustool-address

You’ll be presented with forms that probably include the information you’re looking for. Click through, then you’ll be presented with a variety of different sites that offer the census form you’re looking for.

censustool-options

I’d suggest trying a few. You can now see a full image of the form filled out by a census worker back in 1940, or whatever year you picked. It’s really interesting.

censustool-jobs

Find your old house and you can discover a little about what life was like for its former residences. You’ll see their name, what they do for a living, even how much money they make.

Of course, to use this old information to do visionary web research using Excel web queries Do Visionary Web Research Studies Using Deep Web Data & Excel Web Queries Do Visionary Web Research Studies Using Deep Web Data & Excel Web Queries What would you say if I told you that you have the tools at your disposal to do ground-breaking, Earth-shattering research? Well, you do, and I'll show you how. Read More , or to even do something basic like search for a name, these images need to be turned into a digital database. If you’d like to help make this possible, consider volunteering at FamilySearch.org.

What Did You Discover?

Every ten years the USA counts all of its citizens – something actually mandated by the constitution. This is a massive data-gathering operation, and you can do all kind of interesting things with that data. You can find out more about the scope of the exercise and the huge data it generates on the U.S. Census website. There is page on online data access tools for anyone who wants to dive into facts and figures.

I want to know: what did you find out? Let’s talk in the comments below.

  1. Jenny Lanctot
    September 14, 2014 at 2:14 am

    FYI ... the 1940 (and most others) census is digitized and available on Ancestry.com ($$) or FamilySearch.org (free) and includes a searchable every-name index. (I know, because I was one of the more than 150,000 indexers that made that index a reality within a few months of the release of the 1940 census in April 2012).

    • T
      September 14, 2014 at 12:54 pm

      Thank you! I gave up on this web site and went to ancestry for the answers I was looking for. MUCH easier and MUCH more comprehensive!

  2. Denise E
    September 12, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    interesting article - I live in singapore, and this article prompted me to find out about census data here. was not disappointed! :)

    statistics are quite appealing. another interesting place to look at statistics is the OECD.

    • Justin P
      September 12, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      I visited Singapore a year ago, and my guess is that the records would be fascinating. That's a place that's changed a lot in the past 100 years...

  3. Saikat B
    September 6, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Census data is a goldmine for marketing companies.

    Generally speaking, everyone, for instance -- legislators, politicians, social service workers, health care providers, schools, universities etc., can all do a better job if they understand their towns better.

    Personally, I would like to know my quality of life when compared to the rest of the town/city!

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