Sean Lahman



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Thinking About the Census

(This post originally appeared at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Watchdog Blog.)

While winter storms have pounded the Rochester area, I’ve been enjoying the relatively warm weather in northern California. I’m here at UC Berkeley with about twenty other journalists from around the country, part of a fellowship program at the Graduate School of Journalism. We’ve gathered for a census workshop, immersing ourselves in demographic theory, digging into the nuts and bolts of census data, and learning new interactive tools for helping us to tell compelling stories.

The census may seem like a dry subject. If you remember your high school civics class, you’ll recall that at its simplest, the census is a once-every-ten-year count, used to determine how many congressional representatives each state has. In New York, it’s no surprise that the numbers will reveal a population that has shrunk since 2000, and we’ll lose at least one congressional district. That announcement is just the start of what’s sure to be a very messy political battle to redraw the boundary lines. If history is any indication, it’s likely to have a profound effect on folks who live upstate. The elimination of a district will put one of our existing Congressmen out of work, and ultimately mean fewer federal dollars for our region. Redistricting is a story that will dominate out headlines for the next several years.

Of course, there’s much more information coming out of the census. As we’ve entered the information age, the folks at the US Census Bureau have been gathering more information and doing more sophisticated analysis. The American Community Survey, a program launched in 2005, gathers detailed information about each community every year, providing us tremendous insights that weren’t available before. An array of guest speakers has filled us in on some of the trends.

Howard Hogan, associate director of demographics for the US Census Bureau, said that the ACS data reveals compelling differences between small geographic areas. There are measurable differences in racial diversity, education, average income, life expectancy, and other characteristics – not just between counties and towns, but between neighborhoods within a town.

Dante Chinni, the author of Patchwork Nation, says that while we imagine ourselves as a single country, daily life for people in Rochester is very different than for those in, say, Phoenix, Arizona. He argues that the Red/Blue construct leads to stereotypes, creates camps within the electorate, and leads to the assumption that all Red states are alike, and that all of the Blue states have similar interests and motivations.

William Frey, a demographer and sociologist with the Brookings Institute talked about some of the interesting trends that have emerged. For example, the recession and mortgage meltdown have slowed the rate of domestic migration.  Over the last three years, fewer people moved within the US than at any time since the end of World War II.  This likely saved New York from losing a second congressional district. However, ours is an example of a state that is not only aging, but also seeing a decline in the child population.

But the numbers themselves are only so useful. Our role as journalists is to tell compelling stories. Shan Carter, graphic designer for the New York Times, talked about some of the work his team has been doing. My favorite example was this video about Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera. Using data on every pitch Rivera threw over several seasons, they made some fascinating insights about what makes him so successful.

Another fellow, Geoff McGhee of Stanford University, shared some of the research he’s been doing on the emergence of data visualization as a new medium. His documentary “Journalism in the Age of Data” was absolutely fascinating, and it was great to hear him talk about how we can take this expressive medium and transform it into a communicative medium.

There’s been a lot to digest, and we’re just getting started.  I’m looking forward to coming back and putting what I’m learning into practice. I’ve got a list of stories to report and projects to tackle, and I can’t wait to get started.

But all of that snow? Can’t say I’m anxious to come back to that.

Posted by on December 15, 2010.

Categories: data viz, journalism, recent projects

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About Sean Lahman

Sean Lahman is an award-winning database journalist and author.  He develops interactive databases and data driven stories for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and other Gannett newspapers and websites. He also writes a weekly column on emerging technology and innovation. Prior to joining the Democrat and Chronicle, he was a reporter and columnist with the […]more →

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