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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Screen Shots, Part IV: Demographics

As I researched the data sources to draw from in creating Footprint USA, the second place I went was the US Census (the first was the National Atlas).

My first impulse was to look at the US Census data on a map, which of course I did, and have made available in the app.  But geography doesn't tell the whole story.  While reading the book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, I learned more about demographics and a particular way of visualizing them with bar charts.  

This led me to selecting a small subset of Census data to display on a single screen such that you can see at a glance how age, employment, education, birth, death, and a few other items are distributed in a given population.  And, in the spirit of competition, you can compare any two locations, from cities to counties to states.  

Here's an example comparing the states of Louisiana and New York

There are a number of factoids this visualization reveals (at least in the case of this comparison)...
  • Males and females are born in equal numbers, but men die younger.    
  • The population skews younger in Louisiana, but not because life expectancy is short - the distribution of people age 65 and up is about the same in both states. 
  • Higher education attainment corresponds to a larger percentage of the population being employed.  (Not a surprise)
  • In Louisiana, the ratio of women to men employed is more equal than in New York.
  • A larger fraction of people rent in New York state than in Louisiana, but people change address less frequently in New York.
  • There are more households in New York than Louisiana with 4, 5, 6, and 7+ people.
What does it all mean when you put it together?  Is low education in Louisiana driving more women to work?  Are smaller families a result of people leaving the state when they hit their mid 20's?  How much is the result of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina?  How will life in New York City, another coastal megalopolis, change when rising seas and more intense storms combine - a preview we saw with hurricane Sandy?

What is perhaps most fascinating (or at least most germane to this post) is how data, visualized properly,  can get us thinking more deeply, motivating us to explore the stories behind the numbers, and enhancing our mental models in ways that allow us to ask better questions.  And maybe even find some answers.  

Watch for the next part and final installment in this series: Part V: The Footprint View.

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