Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
MIT and Deloitte’s DataUSA website wants to make information about jobs, housing, demographics, and education easy to access and use.
Rich treasure troves of public data exist about our cities, but for the ordinary person, these can be hard to dig up and decipher. That’s why citizens, nonprofits, and start-ups have been trying to convert some of these complex datasets into comprehensible and usable forms. Even the federal government has been trying to consolidate some of these data tools in one corner on the internet. But this endeavor, while significant, only brings together a few pieces of a larger puzzle. To get a detailed snapshot of a place, we still have to painstakingly put together information from various sources.
Enter DataUSA, a new, comprehensive, open-source visualization venture launched Monday by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Labs and consulting and auditing firm Deloitte. For any county, city, metro, and state in the U.S., this site pulls up visualizations of data on the economy, demographics, health, education, and housing. It’s essentially a one-stop shop for information that is easy to search, understand, embed, and build into new code.
“It’s different from other sites because, in this case, we’re making data available not in the way that it’s collected, but in the way that it’s being used,” Cesar Hidalgo, one of the site’s creators, and director of the MIT Media Lab's Macro Connections group told CityLab.”We’re taking data that was very deep in the web to the surface of the web.”
Say you’re interested in Chicago. If you type the city’s name into the central search box, the website pulls up the profile. Then, if you want to dive deeper into the city’s demographics, you can click on one of the options at the bottom of the screen. The site pulls up an array of interactive visualizations on Chicagoans which you can then share, download, or embed:
The creators hope that journalists, businesses, teachers, and policymakers using the site come away with insights on these topics instead of just a set of loose facts and figures. That’s why they’ve also included a tab called “stories” on the site’s main menu, which features some notable highlights from the datasets. This post on the increase in urban-planning degrees might be interesting for urban enthusiasts, for example.
Another interesting feature is a collection of really cool maps on a range of topics. Here’s one showing the number of deaths by road crashes in each state, for example:
For DataUSA, design and organization have been a priority, because as Hidalgo says, “people do not understand the world by looking at numbers, they understand it by looking at stories.”