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Sources of Demographic Information

April 2014

One of the first steps in any Plan of Conservation and Development or market study is to gain an understanding of the demographics of the population. How many people are there? What is the age distribution? Are there more young families with children, elderly retirees, college students or young professionals living alone, or a mix of all the above and more? What is the average level of education and income among the population? What is the mix of homeowners to renters? How many people are unemployed or living in poverty? The demographics of your area are crucial for guiding future development.

Having an objective source of data for demographics is important for overcoming bias. I have heard one resident of a community deny that their school enrollments could possibly be declining, because she personally knew five women who were pregnant in town! Thankfully, statistically-valid sources of demographic information are readily available.

“I want an overview of town-wide demographics. I want it now, and I want it free.” CERC Town Profiles

The Connecticut Economic Resources Center (CERC) is a wonderful resource for a wealth of economic development research. CERC provides instant town-wide snapshots of various demographic data, and maintains a two-page demographic summary of each town in Connecticut, including age, race, and educational attainment; economic data on the grand list, and major employers; education information about public school test scores; as well as other information on town government, housing and real estate, and labor force.

“I want to know the makeup of my downtown residents within certain Census Tracts. I’m willing to spend some time learning how to use a search tool for free data.” American FactFinder2

For more detailed information, or for obtaining information for geographies other than one town at a time, the US Census is the main source of demographic information in the country. American FactFinder2 is the main portal through which the decennial U.S. Census data can be viewed and downloaded. Using American FactFinder2 does require a learning curve, as you must know how to access the correct data for the geographic area you are looking for. Be aware that the most accurate data, the U.S. Decennial Census 2010, is already four years out of date and no longer collects various economic indicators such as income or poverty levels. The American Community Survey (ACS) collects a 1-year, 3-year, or 5-year rolling average of various demographic data that is no longer collected by the Decennial Census. Be forewarned that the ACS collects data from a much smaller sample size, and that numbers are reported as estimates with a margin of error.

“I want to know economic and income data for residents down to the neighborhood (Census Block Group) level. I’m comfortable with GIS mapping and using Census data, and I still want the data to be free.” UConn State Data Center

American FactFinder2’s ACS data doesn’t provide users with economic data below the Census Tract level. The UConn State Data Center has helpfully collected this data and made it easy to download and join to GIS mapping data down to the Census Block Group level for ACS 5-year data. While less of a learning curve than using Factfinder2, the user does still have to wade through a codebook to determine which of many tables need to be joined to the underlying GIS data.

“I want to know how much money people spend on entertainment within a five minute drive time of my development site. I’m willing to spend some money on data I don’t have to search for myself, or I don’t have in-house GIS capabilities.” Esri BAO

For market studies of specific areas, Esri Business Analyst Online (BAO) is another valuable tool, although it requires an account and can charge $50 per data set after the initial free trial. Esri BAO allows users to select custom geographies (for example, within a 10-minute drive time of downtown) and can automatically generate a number of detailed reports on demographic and market area characteristics, including detailed consumer spending. BAO essentially takes data from the US Census and surveys of consumer spending, combined with behind the scenes Esri GIS mapping software to let you know detailed economic and demographic data for specific areas.

- Carly Myers, Planner I, Milone and MacBroom

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