American Community Survey Data Users Conference – Day 2

As I mentioned in a previous post, I attended the inaugural ACS Data Users Conference this past month in Washington, DC. It was a gathering of over 300 researchers, policy analysts, and business analysts who work with the data.  The second day was focused more on applications and one of the more interesting presentations came from Patty Becker who discussed her work with the mayor of Hartford, CT (registration required).

Besides the interesting use of ACS data to tell the story of a middle-tier American city, she provided a good deal of wisdom about the value of this type of analysis for city administrators.  Despite coming from the Puerto Rican community in the town of which he was in charge, the numbers told a story about the Puerto Rican experience in Hartford in a way the mayor hadn’t completely realized, namely the brain drain as young Puerto Ricans went to school and left the town, paving the way for other Puerto Ricans to come into the town and start the process all over again.  This created some deep problems in the community that became clear through the data.

She also discussed the manner in which she presented the data.  Being non-specialists, the mayor and the department heads to whom she presented her research had no understanding of margins of error or coefficients of variation, so she kept those out of the analysis she presented.  She also rounded the percentages in tables so they all added to 100%.  As she said:

My takeaway from this was that as researchers or anyone using this data, we get eyeball deep in the technical aspects of how the data is collected, managed, and reported, but at the end of the day, we need to be able to tell a story.  In many cases, that story can be very powerful and it doesn’t detract from the story when the numbers that tell that story are a little more or a little less than we say.  We want our numbers to be reliable and our analysis sound, but once the due diligence is accomplished, we shouldn’t let technical details get in the way of understanding.

Comprehension should be the goal, not completeness. The alternative is to have the great work we do analyzing this data lost to the filing cabinet of obscurity.  In a political moment where Congress is questioning the value of the ACS, now more than ever the value of this data needs to be made clear to decision-makers and the American public so they understand what they’re paying for and how it is essential it is to our everyday life.

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