Civic News

Takoma Park built a platform for residents to analyze census data themselves

The dashboard, which just celebrated its first birthday, functions as a portal for residents and civic officials alike to easily find census data on the Montgomery County municipality.

Takoma Park's Dan Powers.

(Courtesy photo)

To help with civic engagement, the DC suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland offered residents an easy-to-read website that draws upon US Census data about them.

The Data Explorer is an all-access page for constituents to find current and previous census data on the city. On its recent first anniversary, the city updated the page to include 2016-2020 data from the American Community Survey. The updated explorer boasts information on such categories as race/ethnicity, housing, poverty, employment/ income, education, health insurance and computer access.

Dan Powers, senior policy and data analyst for Takoma Park, was one of the key forces behind the Data Explorer. He identified what data sources to include, created the HTML page and updated it as new data came out.

According to Powers, the city wanted to create a space for residents and officials alike to find census data specific to Takoma Park.

“The initial motivation was to have a better, more consolidated place to access pretty essential information about the city and its residents — and also economic and racial disparities in the city,” Powers told Technical.ly.

Before the explorer’s creation in 2021, data used in presentations or other professional settings often cited older data. Having all the current data consolidated in one place will be crucial for guiding and planning policy decisions, he said. He added that this platform would help those looking to compare Takoma Park information to that of the rest of Montgomery County, and Maryland at large, for better understanding.

The explorer was built using R Markdown and pulls data from the census, which Powers said is then input into the HTML page with interactive visualizations. The full methodology can be found on the city’s GitHub page, as the whole project was made open source so other towns and cities can potentially replicate it.

“The decision to make it open source, part of the thinking was so that residents have more transparency into the way this type of project comes together,” Powers said. “On the other end, it’s also for residents and other interested people to be able to, if they want to, use the data themselves or for their own communities.”

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For the city, he thinks it can present a continuing sense of what the city needs, as well as what services the city can implement to address them. It’s also useful for the City Council to understand the data behind the suggestions from its staffers and what services they think are important. For instance, Powers noted that the dashboard helped City Council while it was touring projects this year and deciding what to pursue.

“Now, as we’re going into more of the implementation stage, I think the hope is that the data will also be helpful in understanding and informing the design of these types of programs,” Powers said.

The dashboard will be updated going forward, Powers said, as either more data is made available or additional data needs arise. He’s also hoping to add an option to view changes over time.

“There is so much census data available that there are trade-offs to including additional data and making it unwieldy, but there still might be information that would be useful to make publicly available,” Powers said.

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