Needs assessment experts and data nerds know that factfinder.census.gov, the old primary portal into Census data, is dead, while the new census data portal, data.census.gov, is only somewhat alive. Last year, I started a post about the ways that data.census.gov is broken, but I abandoned it because it was too boring, even for me; last year, data.census.gov was hellaciously slow, often taking 10 seconds for a query (a needs assessment may require dozens or hundreds of queries), and many internal links simply didn’t work. Some of that seems to have been fixed: back then, for example, trying to find specific sub-data sets, like educational attainment, for a given zip code, didn’t work. I sent some feedback to the Census contact person, who was very helpful, and eventually most of the problems disappeared.
But not all, it seems; this year’s DOL YouthBuild NOFA includes a humorous instruction regarding data requirements: pages 84 – 86 offer a 20-step algorithm for acquiring poverty data. That the algorithm has 20 steps and three pages is obviously bizarre: instruction 17 notes, “A table will come up showing the Total Population, the Number in Poverty, and the Poverty Rate. Currently, the data is not loading properly and at first only the overall U.S. data will load and you will not be able to scroll any further to the right to see anything else.” Oh? “Currently, the data is not loading properly:” that seems as if it could be the theme of the new Census interface.
About 10 years ago, there was a popular link-sharing site called Digg, and it introduced a now-notorious redesign that users hated, and those users consequently abandoned it en masse, leading to the rise of Reddit, a now-popular link-sharing site. If Digg had been more careful, it probably would have maintained its previous site design for those who wanted it, while introducing its new site design as a default, but not mandatory, experience. And then Digg would likely have iterated on the new design, figuring out what works. Reddit has somewhat learned this lesson; it now has two interfaces, one primarily living at old.reddit.com, which is maintained for people highly familiar with “the old Reddit,” and a newer one that is available by default at reddit.com. This bifurcation strategy allows a smooth transition between interfaces. The Census didn’t follow this strategy, and instead killed the old interface before the new one was really ready. Thus, bugs, like the bugs I’ve noticed, and bugs like those the Dept. of Labor noticed and mentioned specifically in YouthBuild NOFA. The more general lesson is fairly clear: be wary of big user interface changes. If you need Census data, though, you’ll have to use the interface, as is, since it’s the only one available.
For some reason—perhaps latent masochism?—Isaac continues to use MS Office 365 Outlook (not the free version) as an email client, instead of Apple’s Mail.app, or Thunderbird, and he tells me that every time he opens Outlook, he gets an invitation to try “the new Outlook” interface. So far, he’s resisted, but he also points out that most change is positive: when S + A started in 1993, there was effectively no commercial Internet, and the only way to get Census data was to go to Census Office, if you were near a big enough city, city hall, or a large library, where it was possible to thumb through the impenetrable Census books and maps. After a year or two in business, some vendor got the idea of putting the 1990 Census data on CDs (remember those), for quite a high price. Even though S + A was struggling to control costs, he bought the CDs, since they were better than hours in a Census Office or library. But then he had to buy, and install, CD drives in the Pentium PCs (remember those) we used. A couple of years later, he stumbled into a Census data portal set up by a random university, which worked! So, he tossed the CDs. When the 2000 Census came out, the feds essentially copied the university’s interface, creating factfinder.gov, and all was well until data.census.gov came alone. It’ll probably be better than the old interface, at some point.
Complaining is easy and making things better is hard. In the Internet era, both complainers and makers have been empowered, and I appreciate the difference between the two. People who have fundamental responsibility for a product, service, or organization, including the responsibility for making hard decisions that aren’t going to be popular with everyone, have a different perspective than those who can just complain and move on. So I don’t want to be a drive-by complainer, as so many are on “social” media, which seems poisonous to institutional formation and coherence. But, despite those caveats, the instruction from DOL regarding the Census being broken is perversely funny.