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Census Aims To Bring Statistics Home With A New Mobile App

A new app by the U.S. Census Bureau is intended to help Americans understand their communities --€” both current and future.
U.S. Census Bureau
A new app by the U.S. Census Bureau is intended to help Americans understand their communities --€” both current and future.

The keeps a vast and valuable store of anonymous statistics about Americans — their demographics, their neighborhoods, their professions, their households, and more.

Now the agency's putting that information in the palm of your hand.

The bureau on Tuesday announced the release of dwellr, a mobile application that allows users to select their preferences — for housing, demographics and other factors — and learn ideal places for them to visit or live.

Roughly 36 million Americans move each year, so the agency hopes the app might inform their relocation decisions. A broader goal, the Census Bureau says, is to build statistical literacy and release its information to people who might not normally see it.

The app, available in the iTunes and Google Play stores, draws on the agency's American Community Survey, which tracks scores of details about American life and geography. The bureau, for example, collects data about race and ethnicity, economic trends, social characteristics and housing. The data can be used to track population changes — but more importantly they inform policy makers about broader societal trends.

The app is powered by a new technology system that makes the agency's data available to outside developers. It's part of an effort by the agency to adjust to the rapid digital transformation that's changing how many institutions interact with Americans, said Stacy Gimbel Vidal, the agency's chief spokesperson.

"We have to stay with the times and make sure the public gets our information," she said. "We must continue to make our data more open and accessible."

The agency has previously released a mobile app, called America's Economy, which has been downloaded about 100,000 times. The bureau also recently released a data visualization gallery. The new app appears to have a more user-friendly interface and more attractive design.

In using it, users are prompted to select a gender, ideal city size and region of the country, even their preferred coast. Then, users select their marital status or dream job. Users also select their age range, how much education their friends attained — and even their preferred climate — before getting a list of places that fit.

(I got Philadelphia, Boston and New York — not Washington, D.C., where I live.)

The app, which took a year to develop and cost about $260,000, also allows users to check statistics in the places they currently live. It can also geolocate their location when traveling to another place (as many Americans will be doing this holiday week). Such information has been available on the agency's website for years, but the new mobile presentation is intended to reach people outside government, academia and journalism.

"The Census Bureau is definitely going through a digital transition," Gimbel Vidal said. "We're trying to make access to our statistics available to anyone, anywhere on any device."

Matt Stiles is data editor on NPR's News Applications team. You can follow him on Twitter @stiles.

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Matt Stiles is a data editor for NPR's news apps team.
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