Gridded census data is coming, says bureau geographer

A U.S. Census Bureau geographer said the agency will begin releasing gridded data — "geographic units of a regular pattern, repeated shapes, without gaps or overlaps.”
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In addition to datasets based on mercurial census tracts and census blocks, the U.S. Census Bureau will soon begin publishing datasets in a more reliable gridded format, an agency geographer said during an online event Thursday.

Joshua Coutts, a geographer with the bureau’s geography division, told attendees of a National States Geographic Information Council webinar that in addition to the usual formats of data the agency publishes, it’s planning to publish gridded datasets — “geographic units of a regular pattern, repeated shapes, without gaps or overlaps that cover the entire nation.”

He said the addition is intended to supply the public with datasets that — unlike oddly-shaped census tracts that are adjusted every 10 years based on new roads, rivers or other geographic changes — are of “uniform area, consistent, unchanging.”

“This is a really important consideration we have heard from a lot of our users,” Coutts said. “It’s a reference system, it’s a mathematical concept and it’s not dependent on underlying features. This would be a very stable unit and the intent is that it would not change from decade to decade.”


He said the agency is now considering which gridded data to release first, suggesting measures such as number of housing units, economic output or crop yield as possibilities. He pointed to other federal agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which he said already publishes gridded data on measures of rainfall and temperature.

“The Census Bureau wants to do the same to integrate with these other datasets,” he said, adding that the addition of gridded data is intended to make census data easier to integrate with users’ workflows. “There are some use cases where folks need that stable unit. Well, we intend to produce it.”

Census data is widely used for a broad span of statistical analyses, from those measuring public health to inventorying communications infrastructure. Frank Winters, New York State’s former statewide geographic information officer and current chair of the National Pandemic GIS Task Force, a group created by a coalition of industry associations that includes NSGIC, said during the event that he plans to update the task force’s playbook when the gridded data becomes available.

“The National Pandemic GIS playbook calls for data that is address-based, like test results or the address of someone vaccinated, to be aggregated to a unit of geography and then compared with census data and spatial statistics, and all kind of things can be done to explain the variance place to place based on all the demographic and household data,” he said. “I’d love to be able to take a grid and aggregate my own data and then use it to have a common set of geographies that I want to apply to that with spatial statistics.”

Coutts didn’t say when the first gridded datasets will be released, and noted that the agency first wants to gather more feedback from users and ensure it’s following privacy standards. He also emphasized that gridded data will be a permanent addition to — not replace — existing formats.

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