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