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Boatwright Memorial Library

U.S. CENSUS DATA: Census Geography

Choosing a Geography for analysis

When you look at a data table, you need to know what area those data represent. Sometimes it's not obvious!

Before gathering data, you might need to look at a map to see what area(s) or Geographies you want to analyze. You can do that using Social Explorer or data.census.gov (linked below).

Commonly Used Census Geographies

Most of us are familiar with the geographic entities Nation (whole United States), State, and County.

It gets trickier when you want statistics on a smaller area, like "Richmond, VA." Some common Census Geographies we might look at data for:

  • "Richmond city, VA" (this is actually considered a County in the state of Virginia).
    map of Richmond city county
     
  • "Richmond, VA Metro Area" (a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, which is designed to describe a larger concept of a city/metro area and not every area is in an MSA. You can see that the Richmond MSA is a much bigger area than Richmond city County above.)
    map of Richmond MSA
     
  • "23173" (the zip code for UR campus; in Census jargon, these are called ZCTA, or Zip Code Tabulation Area)

     
  • "Tuckahoe CDP" (this is called a Census Designated Place (CDP) or sometimes just Place. These are smaller sub-sections of a city or town, sort of like neighborhoods, and not every area is in a CDP).
    map of CDP Tuckahoe
     
  • "Census tract 411" (a Census Tract, a small administrative area. Tracts are often used to analyze small areas and it's important to know that these boundaries often change from one Census to the next.)
    map of census tract 411, Richmond, VA
     

There are lots of other geographies too, like Congressional Districts, School Districts, Blocks, Block Groups, and more. 

(These maps were all generated using Social Explorer:)

Historical boundaries for comparing data over time

The boundaries of certain Census areas change over time. If you are doing research that compares data over time at areas smaller than Counties, these sources can help you do that effectively. 

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