Data Explorer allows city officials and residents in Takoma Park, Maryland, to explore detailed demographic data on their community.
Takoma Park built an open-source platform called the Data Explorer, which provides the Maryland city’s officials and residents with census information specific to the Washington, D.C., suburb.
“When I first came to the city, it seemed like sometimes when people were trying to seek data or refer to data, they might use an older report … or use disparate sources of census data online,” said Daniel Powers, Takoma Park’s senior data and policy analyst and creator of Data Explorer. “I thought it would be valuable to try to consolidate a lot of important information about the city and its residents and disparities that existed within the city in one place to contextualize that information by comparing it to Maryland and Montgomery County.”
The Data Explorer (first reported on Technical.ly) is an online platform that presents American Community Survey census data from 2016 to 2020 as both text narratives and interactive graphics. The data is organized into tabs and subtabs based on various demographics, such as housing, income, poverty, education or internet access.
Powers said he used R programming scripts to pull and process ACS data for a given year, then an R markdown document prepares visualizations for an HTML page.
The scripts process and load in the data, so keeping the data current just requires updating the year, he said. For instance when updating the 2015 to 2019 ACS in the scripts, “you just need to change it to 2020, and then hopefully next year it’ll just be 2021 and the following year 2022.”
City workers write the narrative and include numeric values that the program will update automatically. If a figure from a given year changes from 15% to 20%, for example, the R markdown document will reflect the change without the city needing to rewrite it, Powers said. However, if the narrative no longer makes sense with the new numbers, staff would have to manually revise it.
For city officials, the dashboard came in handy when they were building a spending plan for COVID relief funds. Takoma Park received $17.5 million through the American Rescue Plan Act at the same time the Data Explorer was being built, Powers said. The information the platform provided helped make sure that proposals were targeted to residents’ needs.
“A direct cash assistance program is something we ended up doing,” Powers said. When deciding the income threshold for the program, “it was helpful to know that a majority of households making less than $50,000 in the city experience housing cost burden,” he said.
Furthermore, the platform makes it easier to evaluate individual characteristics and demographics of Takoma Park residents without having to refer to the census website, which can be difficult to navigate and find and download local information. For instance, the dashboard can provide the number of residents who have health insurance and breakdowns of that information by race and age, Powers said, which users may not even know is available on the census site.
“The goal is rather than needing to look through a bunch of disconnected tables to find this information, you could find it in one place with the text walking you through each table with the option to play around with the table for yourself if you wanted to,” Powers said.
The dashboard’s code is posted on the city’s Github page so other agencies can conduct similar projects “without too much work,” Powers said.