New Online Map Allows the Detailed Scrutinizing of U.S. Households

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Demographic trends in the U.S. have always been a tradition and a wealth of information. After all, the United States government conducts an official census of every household and every person living within its borders every ten years. That census is not only mandated by the U.S. Constitution but the data collected from it is used for a large variety of purposes, one of which is the redrawing of congressional district lines. Using collections of population data similar to the census, researchers have developed the synthetic population viewer, a unique map that allows users to be able to scrutinize U.S. households according to different demographics.

The synthetic population viewer is a web-based map that was created by researchers at RTI International, a research institution. The map is a graphical representation of U.S. households based on four  socio-economic categories. The categories are household income, number of occupants in the household, age of the head of the household, and race of the head of the household. Depending on which category is of interest, users can get a detailed visual map of what communities across the country look like and how they are organized according to those demographics.

The map was produced using information collected from the 2005 to 2009 American Community Survey. It represents more than 112 million households and over 280 million individuals from all fifty states and Washington D.C. Unlike maps that come from the U.S. Census which are based on counties or census tracts, the synthetic population viewer is based on individual households. Each point on the map represents one household so that users can see population and demographic trends in stunning detail. On the other hand, the map also allows users to see the larger picture by representing larger trends not only in communities by in the country as a whole.

The project got its funding as part of the Models of Infection Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) grant. The grant comes from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which is a bioterrorism defense initiative whose purpose is to help researchers understand the dynamics of infectious diseases and reduce the effects of epidemics. There is hope that the data underlying the synthetic population viewer can help track the spread of infectious diseases. Other uses for the map include a wide variety of functions related to transportation networks, supply chain operations, combating obesity, and determining how people make choices about where to live among others.

The map is not without its drawbacks, however. The data does not accurately reflect the location of actual households. Some points on the map are shown to be on roads, parks, cemeteries, and water. For now, the map only shows each household as a separate dot with a separate location. This was implemented in order to protect privacy, but there are future plans to refine the map even more to include the spatial position of households. In any case, the map shows demographic information of the U.S. is a distinctive new way.

To explore US Households visit the Synthetic Household Population Viewer.

Zoomed in quad view of the San Francisco area showing household size, householder age, income, and race.
Zoomed in quad view of the San Francisco area showing household size, householder age, income, and race.

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