Vol. 10 No. 2 February 2002
Digital Government:
Digital Tools for the Electronic Dissemination of Government Information
by Laura Gordon-Murnane Knowledge Net Unlimited
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
During the 1990s, all branches of the federal government worked together to make government information products more accessible to the American public. The White House, Congress, and the Government Printing Office (GPO) worked on plans and key legislation designed to make the distribution of government information less costly, more efficient, and more timely for consumers, citizens, and researchers. To do so required the government to move away from a static and costly distribution media (mostly print, but also including microfiche and microfilm) and embrace digital media as the future mechanisms to distribute government information products. Digital media initially included CD-ROMs, but now more and more it means distribution via the Internet and its Web.

The move away from print products to electronic products has had a direct impact on the type of information released. The government now releases reports, studies, bills, congressional testimony, press releases, government forms, and statistics via the Internet on a regular and frequent basis. Many of these same documents and resources, previously available only in print, are now available from GPO Access as electronic documents (both HTML and PDF).

However, the federal government has gone beyond the distribution of previously available print documents. It has also developed electronic tools that allow citizens and researchers to tap into and interact with the wealth of information collected by the government. Many of these electronic tools or databases are now available exclusively on the Web.

The number of government databases is considerable and growing all the time. GPO Access alone makes available database resources that cover all aspects of the federal government's areas of interest and activity congressional/legislative, executive, judicial, regulatory, and administrative decisions []. The GPO is not the only government agency that produces information products and distributes them over the Web. Most executive branch agencies have Web sites and make a great deal of information available on them press releases, reports, surveys, and data collections.

Government databases come in all different flavors and topics business, legislative, and scientific. In the area of business the EDGAR database from the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commerce Business Daily, the procurement database that lists business opportunities with the federal government, help business researchers and those wanting to do business with the government. Legislative information is provided by the Library of Congress's THOMAS, a fabulous set of databases that includes congressional bills, the Congressional Record, and committee hearings. THOMAS is powered by InQuery an absolutely terrific information retrieval system. In the area of science and medicine the federal government truly excels, with the availability of Medline/PubMed [], the DOE Information Bridge [], and PubScience [].

At present, the federal government makes most of this information available free of charge to the American public. One hopes that current and future administrations and Congress will continue a liberal policy on the distribution and dissemination of information collected by the government.

In September 2000 and April 2001, respectively, two important tools became available on the Internet. In September 2000, the government launched, the federal government's portal and search engine for government information. is an attempt to make it easier for the average citizen to find information made available by the federal government.

In April of 2001, the Census Bureau began to release on a daily basis the vast statistical information gathered from the 2000 Census. The Census Bureau has made this information available through its American FactFinder site. American FactFinder is the Census Bureau's distribution tool for the Decennial Census of Population and Housing. The tool has been designed to take the wealth of Census material and make it more accessible than ever before. Having begun collecting census material in 1790, the federal government still finds itself facing the challenge of distributing census data effectively.

Each of these new government Web tools has been designed to help end users find answers to specific questions. How well these tools deliver on this goal is the subject for discussion.

Background is a public-private collaboration designed to develop a "one-stop" shop for government information. Prior to the release of, searchers often struggled in their attempts to find government information. Searches required coping with an array of search engines on different government agency Web sites, the unfriendly and infrequently updated Government Information Locater Service (GILS), or learning a variety of commercial/non-profit search services like Google/Unclesam [], the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval's now defunct GovBot, or Northern Light's usgovsearch engine []. Other commercial search engines also indexed some government material, but never completely. No single commercial engine covered the entire body of government documents released by the federal government or even its executive branch alone.

In December 1999, President Clinton issued a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies instructing them to embrace technologies and resources that would help them institute electronic government at their agencies and departments. The Memorandum called on the agencies and departments to make federal forms and transactions available online, to safeguard end-user privacy, and to provide access for the disabled. The first item of the Directive specifically called for the establishment of a "one-stop shop" for government information to be made available on the Internet. The President also stipulated that the information should be organized by the type of information rather than by the agency1. The President's Management Council (PMC), comprised of the chief operating officers from the major departments and agencies, immediately adopted the goals of "electronic government," for the year 2000 with the construction of a "one-stop shop" as the cornerstone of its activities.

In March 2000, Dr. Eric Brewer, the founder and chief scientist of the Inktomi Corporation, approached the Clinton administration with an offer to help the federal government embrace electronic government. Brewer offered to develop a search engine, at no cost to the government, which would search across the 27 million Web pages currently available on government servers. He made the offer for several reasons he wanted to build a search engine that would allow the public to gain access to these Web pages. Second, despite the difficulty of the challenge, he wanted to develop a tool that could "promote a government that understands and uses the Internet to its full potential; that is a government in which everyone not only uses the Internet, but also views it as a primary medium for communication and public service."2

Brewer explained the motivation behind his offer in somewhat personal terms. He had received a grant from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) when a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley. With this grant, he was able to develop a new technology that allowed him to build the Inktomi Corporation. Now he had decided to give something back to the federal government, based on the technology that the government had supported way back when.

To make it work, Brewer created the Federal Search Foundation, a not-for-profit charitable organization funded through private donations and in-kind contributions. Brewer himself currently supports the Foundation, but it has also received in-kind donations from both Inktomi and Sun Microsystems. The charter of the foundation is to provide a search engine at no cost to the government for not only the site, but any other federal government site.

The Federal Search Foundation, however, has a life expectancy of 3 years; after that time, it will cease to exist. Everything will be turned over to the federal government except for one big thing the database, the repository of federal agency URLs. When the federal government agreed to accept Dr. Brewer's gift, it was under the assumption, states Sally Katzen, former OMB Deputy Director, that "there wasn't supposed to be anything proprietary." However, the memorandum of understanding signed by Dr. Brewer and General Services Administration (GSA) administrator David J. Barram in September 2000 stated that the Federal Search Foundation intended to use Inktomi's proprietary software to build the search engine. Furthermore, the memorandum goes on to state that if the government chose a different search engine competitor, after the 3 years were up, "the connections to Inktomi will be disconnected and the [FirstGov] servers will be purged of software and data prior to donation to GSA." Essentially, if the government chooses another search engine vendor, the new vendor will have to build the search engine from scratch. By offering the database to the government, free of charge, and by accepting the database offer, the standard procurement process seems to have been circumvented. Inktomi stands in a very desirable position to take over the search engine and gain a lucrative contract in the process. The GSA is responsible for the Web site front-end and content decisions, while the Federal Search Foundation is responsible for building, improving, and maintaining the search engine component of the site.3

On June 24th, 2000, President Clinton announced plans to launch in a Webcast. He pledged the site would be up and running in 90 days. was released to the public on September 22, 2000 exactly 90 days after President Clinton's Webcast in June. Since its release, the site has undergone continuous revision and the Federal Search engine has increased its crawl from .gov and .mil sites to include .us (state) sites as well. Since its release, the search engine has grown from 27 million pages to over 50 million pages. The GSA is responsible for day-to-day operation of the site and the Federal Chief Information Officers Council and 22 other federal agencies funded it for the year 2000. In the Federal Budget for 2002, President George W. Bush has proposed $100 million to support electronic government for a 3-year period.

What kind of information did the search engine set out to find on all the government servers? The foundation search engine initially covered Web sites that have a .gov and .mil in their primary domain name. (Note since it was built, the Federal Search engine has also begun to index state government information that uses .us as its domain suffix). The .gov and .mil domains include Congress, the U.S. courts, the White House, and all cabinet departments, independent agencies, and some state Web sites. The search engine index includes only publicly available documents. It excludes any information that is classified, private, password-protected, or firewall-protected. Having said this, each agency and department had to look long and hard at what information was made available on the servers, what information was deemed appropriate, and what was not. Although this information was made available prior to the release of, now there would be an easier way of obtaining the information with the launch of the Federal-Search engine. It is the strict policy of the Federal Search Foundation and not to censor the content found by the search engine. and the Federal Search Foundation believe the responsibility to remove any documents inappropriate for public access belongs to the agencies and their Webmasters.

Structure of the Site
The site is organized into several sections: "Featured Subjects," "Transactions, Forms, and Services," "Government by Organization," "Contact Your Government," "Horizontal Menu Bar," "Search Options," and "Browse Government by Topic."

Featured Subjects
The first section on the left, "Feature Subjects," changes frequently to include the "hot or current" topics in the news. The subjects change on a monthly basis. Previous hot topics appear in the "Past Features" subsection.

Transactions, Forms, and Services
The second section is organized into three categories E-Citizen, E-Business, and E-Government. In each of the three categories, users will find transaction options, forms, and services relevant to the different groups.

If you want to buy a national park pass, gifts from the White House gift shop, or stamps, go to the E-Citizen area. If you think you might like to do business with the federal government, then take a look at E-Business. Here you will find links to the U.S. Business Advisor, government auctions, and FedBizOpps (the government portal for federal business opportunities). You will also find tax forms and applications as well as a link to the government federal forms portal []. The E-Government section provides links to government-to-government transactions and services for businesses. This subsection has links to auctions, asset sales, and surplus property for federal, state, local, and international government sales worldwide. You can also find links to federal forms, government contacts, and other resources.

I think each link should have a brief annotation that explains what kind of information is available at the site. As of now, you have to go to the different sites to find out what each offers and, unless you have experience with the site, you have no idea what to expect or where to look.

Government by Organization
This section contains links to the federal executive (including the White House and executive agencies), the legislative branch, and judicial agencies. It also provides access to all 50 state Web sites and other state and local information, as well as links to international government Web portals.

Contact Your Government
If you need to contact the federal government, provides links to contacting different government groups. You can contact your government by topic, by agency, state governors, and your congressional representatives. The list of contacts is quite helpful, especially with the inclusion of the e-mail address for specific agencies and departments. In addition to an e-mail address, provides links to Webmaster addresses, as well as general contact information (phone, address). Many of the agencies have set up an e-mail form that can be filled out and sent right from agency sites.

One caveat: is receiving a great deal of e-mail by the public regarding general reference type questions. At this point, cannot really handle the large volume of e-mail requests it receives, but it does try to forward the e-mail requests to the correct agency. One solution to this problem would be to explore the possibility of online reference desk. The e-mails could go to an online reference desk service where librarians would try to answer questions or forward them on to appropriate agencies. This would truly be responsive e-government.

Horizontal Menu Bar
The horizontal menu bar provides basic administrative information about the site. "Help," "About Us," "Privacy and Security," "Site Map," and "Contact" information provide housekeeping details about the site. If you have privacy concerns, take a look at the on "Privacy and Security" section. Here you can learn what kind of information collects from you when you visit the site.

Search Engine: How Does the Fed-Search Engine Work?
The Fed-Search search engine provided by Inktomi Corporation sends out a spider or robot to a particular Web site. Beginning at a specific starting point the search engine downloads the full text of that starting page. The words on the page are then used to create an index. Once the entire page has been compiled into the index, the spider uses the links that it finds on the page to recursively examine the entire site. This process, known as crawling, indexes each subsequent page and downloads the text into the database index. The process continues until it has exhausted all the links for a given starting point. The index created is called a seed list.

The Federal Search engine uses the URL seed list as the starting point for its index. The search engine crawls all links found on each one of these sites until all links are exhausted. The search engine only indexes sites that end with the .gov, .mil, and .us domain name tags. (Note: In May 2001, began to add state government Web sites. This will add about 20 million additional Web sites to the search engine). The domain names for .com, .net, .org, and numeric IP addresses are not included in the index, unless specifically added. This can be somewhat troublesome, because some government organizations have chosen to use .edu, .org, or .com in their domain names. These sites will not be included in the index. One example of this is the Smithsonian Institution [], which uses .edu as its extension. Also, if you look for the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1999, you will only find a mention of it on the Justice Department Site. To use the Sourcebook, you will have to go to the State University of New York at Albany []. The U.S. Postal Service has set up a site []; therefore USPS' Web content will also not appear on the search engine.

The search engine is refreshed twice a month beginning on the 1st and 15th. The crawling process generally takes about 72-96 hours, with an additional 36 hours of compiling before the entire index is replaced. The Fed-Search engine also can conduct "mini-crawls," used for time-sensitive data that cannot wait for the 2-week interval. However, this requires a special request.

The spider does not index classified documents or those sitting behind firewalls, password-protected areas, or hidden areas not on the URL seed list. According to the Federal Search Foundation's FAQ, the spider respects all no-robots.txt files for the entire site or for particular areas of a given site excluded from the crawl. (Robot.txt files are instruction files that spiders read before examining a site. The Robots.txt files are simple .txt files that can block sensitive information, both directories and documents. The Inktomi spider follows the RES [Robots Exclusion Standard] that will block any site or document that sets up a Robots.txt file for that site and pages.)

The Federal Search engine also reads the standard metatags read by most commercial search engines Author, Description, and Keywords.

The search engine ranks results based solely on comparing the user's search query to the text content of Web pages in the index. Basic factors affecting a page's ranking include the words in the title, keyword metatags, word frequency in the document, and document length:

  • Word frequency in a document in general, the more often a query word occurs in the document, the higher the score.

  • Search words in title pages that use your search terms in the title will rank significantly higher than documents that contain the search term in the text only.

  • Search words in Keywords pages that use your search term in the keywords metatag, will rank more highly than text words, but less highly than title words.

  • Document length when the search term appears frequently in a short document, the page will rank higher than when the word appears in a long document.

Search Features
I have found the search features and the help instructions of the Fed-Search Engine somewhat idiosyncratic. In the course of several test searches, I found the help facilities confusing in attempting to explain what the search engine does. It would help more if the search instructions were made available in terms of Boolean searching (AND, OR, NOT), as well as phrase and proximity searching. I understand that the Federal Search engine is designed for the general population, but, with the popularity of Google and Alta-Vista, the designers have created more confusion than help with the instructions provided.

GSA has issued an RFP for a new search engine. Proposals were to be delivered by the middle of July 2001. GSA asked vendors and industry leaders to submit suggestions for "search service solutions" that can power the search engine. It is hoped that the new search engine designers will provide better help instructions more in line with commercial search engine techniques.

The search engine has two search options, simple or basic search and advanced search. At this point, the Fed-Search engine has undergone many enhancements and GSA staff is working with librarians and staff at the GPO to develop a taxonomy of government terms to make it easier to find relevant documents.

Simple Search by default searches for all keywords entered.

  • Exact Match Query use mixed uppercase and lowercase letters in a keyword search or phrase if you want to search for the words only when an exact match is desired. If you want the search engine to look for all uses of your keyword or phrase, then use all uppercase or all lowercase.
Advanced Search Features
In the Advanced Search page begin by selecting one of the choices:
  • A series of drop-down options for keyword searches
  • All Words all words typed in the search box must appear in each result
  • Any Words any or all of the words typed in the search box must appear in each result
  • The Exact Phrase the exact phrase typed in the search box must appear in each result
Note:Quotation marks, commas, or Boolean connectors are not required.

Location of Keywords in the Document

  • Anywhere this looks for the designated search terms anywhere on the page of all publicly accessible government and military pages

  • Domain this looks for the designated search terms in a specific domain (.gov, .mil, us)

  • Home Pages this looks for the designated search terms anywhere on the top level home pages of all publicly accessible government and military Web sites.

  • Web page titles this looks for the designated search terms anywhere in the Web page title of all publicly accessible government and military Web pages.
Federal or State Information
In this section, you can choose to limit your search to federal government information, state government information, or you can select both federal and state. Be careful with selecting both because you might be overwhelmed with the number of hits. Better to select the state you need rather than doing a global search unless you seek information on a specific topic for all of the states.

Additional Terms
Additional terms can be added by clicking on the "add more terms" option.

Display Results
You can select how many results you want displayed. The default is 10 detailed; this will return 10 results per page and detailed descriptions of the results. You can also select 100 results per page, but that display option will provide no descriptions for each result.

Browse Government by Topic
This section is the largest of the entire Web site and its Yahoo-esque design is intended to make it easier for end users to find government information based on a topic rather than by agency. The sites are arranged alphabetically and include such topics as "agriculture and food," "health," "money and taxes," and "library and reference." Clicking on a topic will open a page that provides a brief description at the top of the page of the kind of information you will find, along with an extensive list of links. The links are organized into "featured links" and "related links." However, the links themselves are not annotated, so you will have to find which site you need through browsing or trying the search engine. Annotations for each link would significantly enhance this section.

Another area is the cross-agency centers. These link to cross agency government portals that deal with specific topics such as disabilities, kids, seniors, and workers. Several agencies have teamed up to provide information on a single topic pulled together from different agencies and sources. These "one-stop-shopping" sites can prove very helpful for end users. More "cross-agency" portals need to be developed to facilitate access to government information.

Overall Reaction
My reaction to is that it is an extraordinary effort to get federal digital distribution facilitation of information off the ground. Consumers, citizens, business leaders, and researchers should find it a very useful and valuable tool. However, more needs to be done. End users use the Internet as a utility-based medium I have a question and I need an answer. The government is not the only organization trying to find a way to make searching for information easier, faster, and more efficient. Adding more and more pages to a search engine is only useful if the information sought can be found. Otherwise, it only makes for greater and greater frustration.

The search engine component is slowly getting better, but search results need more focus and refinement. Search instructions have also improved, but are still idiosyncratic in comparison to standard search terminology. Specific examples of how to search using the advanced search features would certainly help. In this regard, designers might want to look at the Help sections from the Library of Congress' THOMAS or GPO Access. Both have excellent Help sections that walk the user through the search process. FirstGov also needs to add advanced search features that can limit to specific federal agencies, specific states, etc. The content areas should have annotations with useful descriptions of what patrons will find. The repository of government information available on the Internet is a valuable resource that will only grow in importance and utility for all Americans. is a great idea and well on its way to being a very useful and valuable government tool. Even though it is not quite there yet, should not be ignored.

American FactFinder

Since April 2001, newspapers have been reporting interesting demographic changes to the American family. For the first time, Americans can find out a great deal of demographic information from the 2000 Census quickly and easily. To make this happen, the Census Bureau developed a tool American FactFinder to make it easy to find demographic information.

Before the development of American FactFinder, the Decennial Census of Population and Housing was made available through numerous printed volumes and miles of magnetic tape. The 1990 Census introduced the use of CD-ROMs as a means of distributing Census data, but dissemination of Census material was still very expensive and inefficient. Many of the reports and predefined Census products were never used by the public, leading Census Bureau managers to seek another way to distribute this information in cost-effective, efficient, and easy-to-use media. Today, the Census Bureau distributes the 2000 Census material through American FactFinder (AFF), an innovative and functional distribution tool.

American FactFinder is the brainchild of the Data Access and Dissemination Systems Program (DADS). The DADS group realized that information technology could make Census material much more directly accessible by giving the public what they wanted, rather than what the Census Bureau had determined would be of value to the general public. To that end the Bureau developed a tool accessible through the Internet as its primary distribution vehicle, one that could support the widest range of internal and external users, regardless of end-user hardware platform configuration.

The American FactFinder was built with several important principles. First the system has a scalable production system. As usage grows over time, the system will be able to handle increased demands. It is designed to handle the widest range of end users, including novice and expert end users, as well as different hardware environments. It can manage and distribute very large data sets that are updated regularly. It protects confidential information. Lastly, the system has to be able to grow over time in both the number of users and the adding of new data sets and new functional capabilities.

The system infrastructure consists of 41 UNIX (AIX) server nodes and 12.5 terabytes of storage capacity. The designers of AFF wanted to build a tool that could take all of the data and make it responsive to the needs of the end user whatever that might be. Dynamic content in AFF is supported by a large Java implementation with approximately 200 servlets, 100 Java Server Pages, and a large data warehouse that contains Census metadata and data. Consequently, with all of this programming and hardware firepower, American FactFinder can handle between 3,000 and 5,000 dynamic queries simultaneously, before you get a busy signal. In fact, the Census Bureau is designing the system to accommodate somewhere between 5 million and 7 million "hits" against AFF per week. Pretty ambitious goals.

Information Included
American FactFinder currently includes (as of August 2001):

  • 2000 Census Basic Population and Housing Data (PL94-171) information for all states (total population and race)
  • 1990 Census Basic and Detailed Tables
  • American Community Survey, 1996-1999 ACS is a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that provides profiles of selected communities every year. The information collected will provide estimates of demographic, housing, social, and economic characteristics every year for all states, as well as for all cities, counties, metropolitan areas, and population groups of 65,000 people or more.
  • 997 Economic Census Data The Economic Census provides a detailed portrait of the nation's economy every 5 years, from the national to the local level.
  • Basic Reference Maps (2000 and 1990 Geography)
  • Thematic Maps (2000 and 1990 Geography)
  • Search Address Feature

American FactFinder is organized into several sections "Keyword and Place Name Searching," the "Basic Facts," "Items of Interest," FactFinder Data Sources," "Data Sets" option, "Reference Maps," and "Thematic Maps."

Each section provides access to specific types of information. The information is broken down into several groups Quick Tables, Geographic Comparison Tables, Detailed Tables, and Thematic Maps.

Quick Tables are a predefined list of tables that offer quick access to frequently requested information regarding a single geographic area. The information includes numerical data and derived measures (e.g., percent distributions and medians). You choose a geographic area by selecting it from a list, searching for the area by name (a specific city, a specific county, etc.), or clicking on a map. FactFinder lets you choose more than one geographic area and more than one table and displays each selected geography and table in a scrolling list. Once you have selected the geographic area and chosen the quick table(s) you want, you can create, print, and download the results. Quick Tables present data for the United States and Puerto Rico only.

Geographic Comparison Tables provide a way to compare population and housing information for similar geographic areas (all counties in a state, all census tracts in a county, etc.). Select the geographic summary level, then pick the predefined table you want to see. After you select the geographic summary level and table, you can create, print, and download the table. Geographic Comparison Tables present data for the United States and Puerto Rico only.

Detailed Tables provide access to data from summary files. You begin by selecting one or more geographic areas. Then you select a detailed table by keyword or subject (e.g., age, sex, income, education, owner costs, etc.), or by selecting from a list of table titles. Once you've made your selections, you can view, print, or download the results. Census 2000 summary files, unlike those in previous censuses, do include totals and subtotals. Detailed tables are available for all areas in which the Census Bureau conducted Census 2000.

Thematic Maps allow researchers to identify geographic patterns in statistical data. For example, a thematic map could show the population density of Maryland by census tract. To create a thematic map, choose a geographic area for your map and then select the data to display. You can print or download the resulting thematic map once you've made your selections. Thematic maps present data for the United States and Puerto Rico only.

Keyword and Place Name Searching Options
At the top left, the search options feature appears. Here you can search by keyword or place name. Use the keyword search feature for data and thematic maps. The keyword search feature searches across all data files (Decennial, Economic Census 1997, and American Community Survey) and all thematic maps. You can also search for multiple variables in the same table (age, race, or sex). The "Search Results" section of the Keyword Search page lists the Products, Publications, Quick Tables, Detailed Tables, Thematic Maps, and other items that match the search criteria you entered. Keyword searching is a great and efficient way to identify statistical data.

Place Name searching is also a great way to find brief statistical information about a specific place. Place Name searching returns brief statistical tables, thematic maps, and reference maps. Once you have selected a place name, you will have the option to select all of the available data sources or individual censuses or surveys. The different data sources (2000 Census, 1990 Census, 1997 Economic Census, and the American Community Survey) will yield different results. Once you have selected the census or survey, Place Name search results will list Products, Reference Maps, Quick Tables, and Thematic Maps from both the Census 2000 Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary File and the Census 2000 Summary File 1 (SF 1) 100-Percent Data.

The wealth of information available is quite amazing and easily retrieved. One of the truly nice features of AFF is the Help tool. You can get tailored help when you click on the Help tab at the top right. Wherever you are in the search process, the Help feature will help you complete the search you have undertaken.

Place Name searching also retrieves thematic maps. The thematic maps are a handy way of revealing patterns in the statistical data that map graphics make easier to read and understand. Place Name searching provides thematic maps by Census Tract and by Block Group (1990). You can also obtain thematic maps for county searching and state searching. County searching from the 1990 Census yields thematic maps by county subdivision, place, census tract, and block group. State searching results in thematic maps broken down by county, county subdivision, congressional district, and census tract.

Place Name searching can also produce Reference Maps. Reference Maps are used to identify counties in a state, cities or townships in a county, census tract, block group, and block numbers. A Reference Map provides boundaries of tracts, block groups, and blocks. Remember that the tract, block group, and block numbering can vary from one Census to another. To add greater precision and depth to the map, you can use the legend tool to add physical features to your Reference map. You can also compare the differences between the 1990 Census and the 2000 Census.

Basic Facts Option
In the center of the page, you will see the "Basic Facts" section, which is really a browse section that contains fast answers to the most commonly asked questions. The Basic Facts section allows end users to select either tables or quick maps. The goal here is to make finding data for one geographic area (nation, state, county, or place) simple and easy. The tables option in the Basic Facts section includes four types of tables and maps Geographic Comparison Tables, Quick Tables, Detailed Tables, and Thematic Maps.

The Quick Map feature allows end users to map county level information for selected 2000 and 1990 populations, as well as the 1997 Economic Census data.

Items of Interest
Below the "Basic Facts" section is the "Items of Interest" section. This section contains links to data and information made available recently. This section changes every couple of weeks with announcements of the availability of newly released tables or data sets. As of early August, the Items of Interest section includes the Summary File 1 which includes tables on age, sex, households, families, and housing for smaller areas. The information is released on a state-by-state basis.

Another nifty tool is Address Searching. Here you can search for 2000 maps and data using street addresses. Results include county, city, tract, block, and voting district numbers. Congressional District and Metropolitan Statistical Area information is also made available. The information can also be mapped. However, the address search feature's effectiveness depends on the availability of data provided by local communities. In some instances you will not be able to search street addresses. The search results include county and city name, census tract, block, and voting district numbers for 2000.

Additional information in this section includes the Housing Unit Counts housing units counts for states, counties, places, and more. Demographic Profiles include age, sex, race, and Hispanic/Latino counts, as well as information on housing, households and families. This section also includes Rankings, Comparisons and Summaries for the changes between the 1990 and 2000 Decennial Censuses. It also provides the total population for the United States as of April 1, 2000 281,421,906.

The FactFinder "Data Sources" section identifies exactly which censuses and surveys are available via American FactFinder with direct links to FactFinder pages that allow users to create tables and maps not already developed. Currently, the Data Sources section includes links to the 2000 and 1990 Decennial Censuses, the 1997 Economic Census, and the American Community Survey from 1996-1999.

On the left-hand side, the navigation menu offers three important search options Data Sets, Reference Maps, and Thematic Maps.

Data Sets
The Data Sets option offers easy access to comprehensive information from the Decennial Censuses, the American Community Survey, and the Economic Censuses and Surveys. This more advanced feature allows users to:

  • create Quick Tables, Geographic Comparison Tables, and Detailed Tables for Population and Housing data.
  • view data sets, Industry Quick Reports, and Geographic Quick Reports for Economic data.
  • create Thematic Maps from Population and Housing data and Economic data.

Reference Maps
These maps can create a map showing the boundaries of a Census geographic area or areas, such as a congressional district or census tract, as well as other features, such as roads or waterways. Besides using Place Name searching to find Reference Maps (as described above), you can also browse by using the Reference Maps option from the menu on the left. You can use the zoom feature to focus your search for specific information and once you have identified the map you want, you can zoom, change geographies, change data sets, and add or subtract physical features using the legend tool.

Thematic Maps
These maps create maps that geographically depict statistical data, such as population, median income, or industry data. As we have seen, you can use keyword searching to create thematic maps, but it is easier to browse the complete list of thematic maps using the Thematic Maps feature. The default theme is population per square mile and the Census 2000 Redistricting Data (Public Law 94-171) Summary File. By selecting a state you can change the map to show counties, metropolitan areas, and congressional districts (106th). Once you have selected a map, you can change the geographic display or use the zoom tool to focus your map.

If you need help, the Census Bureau provides several help tools. Help and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) are always available, no matter where you are in FactFinder. The easy-to-follow and clearly explained Help walks you through the retrieval process. The Census Bureau has also made available a tutorial, glossary, and pop-up windows that explain what you are looking at. Another first-rate tutorial has been designed and developed by Grace York, coordinator for the Government Documents Division at the University of Michigan []. She has put together a fabulous tutorial that walks you through the entire site, one that includes a series of exercises on each of the areas covered. This is a great way to learn about the many features offered by American FactFinder.

Overall Reaction
All in all, American FactFinder is a very impressive tool that makes locating the wealth of census material easy. The tool should facilitate the distribution of the vast array of census material; it looks flexible enough to include additional data sets when they become available. The creators of American FactFinder intended to make census material more easily available and accessible. I believe they have succeeded. The DADS team should be applauded for a first-rate piece of work. They have thought through the entire process and made it easy to learn, easy to find, and easy to incorporate this huge body of data into useful and meaningful segments. Great job.

Both and American FactFinder are laudable and impressive efforts to bring citizens together with their government using the Web and are positive examples of our taxpayers' dollars at work!

1. Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, December 17, 1999 [].

2. Testimony of Dr. Eric Brewer, " Is It a Good Idea?," Subcommittee on Government, Management, Information and Technology, October 2, 2000 [].

3. Dipka Bhambam, "Who's Owner of FirstGov Database? Not Uncle Sam," Government Computer News, vol. 20, no. 24, August 20, 2001 [].


Laura Gordon-Murnane's e-mail address is
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
© 2002