It’s All About Access in the Digital Age


At the U.S. Census Bureau, we’re all about the data.

We survey millions of people and business across all 50 states and provide compiled results describing  just about every facet of Americans’ lives — income, education, race, housing values —and the U.S. economy.  In other words, we offer an ocean of information.

But not everyone who comes to us for that information wants to be a deep-sea diver. Sure, we have data experts who want every bit of  the thousands of tables we produce. But it might surprise you that we have a diverse customer-base, with varying data needs. Census Bureau data helps city and county planners and other elected officials looking for information that shows the impact of public policy decisions.  The data helps students writing research papers, small business owners planning to expand, and even a family considering a move — most Americans have a reason to use our data.  It is up to us to figure out how to present that data in a way that is accessible to all of our customers.

In this space over the coming weeks, we hope to turn your attention to the many ways the Census Bureau has met the digital challenge while at the same time transforming our approach from agency-centric to more information and customer centric.  We understand that in an age of mobile technology, people are used to getting the information they want right away, wherever they are. They don’t want to wade through spreadsheets to get to a single data point.

We have launched multi-pronged effort to meet expectations for mobile access.  First, census.gov is going responsive.  As we migrate the site to new content management technology, more and more of the vast content the site offers will provide a responsive experience across screen sizes.  We have also turned to mobile apps as another solution.  Just as you can make a quick reservation with a restaurant on your phone, we wanted Census Bureau users to be able to easily track down our most popular information.  These apps and responsive design are great at making data easily accessible, allowing our customers to get the information they need quickly and on any device.

But our goal wasn’t to get into the “app building business” — we wanted to make just a few easy-to-use apps with high-value data for our different types of customers.  To determine what would be viewed as valuable via a mobile app, we examined website analytics and results from our online and in-person workshops, with a focus on how best to access and use statistics.

Then we brainstormed. We made a list of about 20 ideas to begin with and whittled that down to 10.  As we went along, we thought about which ideas would best showcase our data and make it most usable. Eventually, we decided on three app concepts that featured some of the most popular information the Census Bureau provides.

The three apps we chose to develop: America’s Economy, Dwellr and Pop Quiz, together showcase the range of what the Census Bureau offers while surfacing the most salient data in a handful of our most powerful data sets.  Let’s take a closer look at America’s Economy.

America’s Economy: Make it empowering.

For the America’s Economy mobile app, we got together with our colleagues at the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Economic Analysis and pooled our data.  Our view was this app needed to present a fuller picture of the economy than what Census Bureau data alone could show if we were to gain a large following.  We took the 21 economic indicators (based on significance and user feedback) — including unemployment rate, new residential construction, and gross domestic product — and compiled them to create a complete picture of the economy.  When new information on an indicator comes out, users can see if it moved up or down and how it’s been trending over the last 24 months.

This app is great for people who follow economic news and want a quick snapshot of the economy.  America’s Economy is also available as a widget on the Census.gov homepage for those who may not know that the Census Bureau collects economic data.

In future blogs over the next few months, we’ll share other aspects of how the Census Bureau is embarking on a journey of change to deliver a customer-centric digital experience.  We aim to improve access to all the data entrusted in us to share.

Stephen L. Buckner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katarina Hong

Interesting post! Can’t wait to read more about the other aspects of the Census Bureau’s journey towards a customer-centric digital experience.

Stephen L. Buckner

Thanks, Katerina. We’re looking forward to sharing our strategies. We’re all navigating this world of ever-changing technology – it’s great to hear what other agencies are doing.

Sonia Chakrabarty

As a student who used census data for research papers, I enjoyed this post and look forward to hearing about the other two apps!

Andrew K Kirk

Thanks for the insight into your process. Should they be 3 separate apps?
You know your audience 100x better than I do, but doesn’t creating 3 separate apps require 3 different marketing pushes, three different user acquisition strategies, etc.
It would have been interesting to create 3 light-weight apps, track initial usage, and then build out from there.
Best of luck!

Stephen L. Buckner

Great question! This goes back to our customer-centric approach to the digital transformation. We knew we needed to adapt to our more mobile audience. We wanted to give people a range of ideas on how they can use Census data, while meeting the needs of our very diverse audience. After initial research, we felt that America’s Economy, Dwellr and Pop Quiz would highlight the different kinds of data that we produce in a positive mobile experience.