United States Census Bureau

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"The U.S. Census Bureau is honored to be inducted into the URISA GIS Hall of Fame, which recognizes the achievements of Census Bureau staff for its technological innovations for making GIS data available to the nation." 

—  Thomas L. Mesenbourg, Acting Director, Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau is a worldwide leader in providing both the spatial and statistical data critical to GIS users to government partners, academia, the private sector and the general public.

Beginning with the first census in 1790, the Census Bureau collected data on the population of the United States. Later Censuses included questions about age, race, gender, ancestry, education, housing, and income. These data inform federal, state, and local government policies as well as private sector investment decisions.

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Over the last 60 years, the Census Bureau has been a leader in statistical sampling and interviewing techniques, data processing, quality control, and cartographic techniques.1 The Census Bureau was the first user of the UNIVAC 1 computer after the 1950 census and developed the Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers for the 1960 census.

After the 1960 Census, the Census Bureau planned to move to a mail-out mail-back system for the 1970 Census. This required geocoding of addresses and complex data processing to associate returned census forms to the correct census block. The Census Bureau was a leader in the early development of computer mapping with the implementation of the GBF/DIME-Files (Geographic Base File/Dual Independent Map Encoding) for the 1970 and 1980 censuses. In the 1970’s, James Corbett of the Bureau’s Statistical Research Division devised a system of map topology that assures correct geographic relationships. Not only did his system provide a sound mathematical base for most future GIS work, it also led to the TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) system that is used by GIS offices around the nation2. These two major spatial data innovations allowed for the expansion of low levels of geographic areas and the associated census data. It also served as a catalyst for the rapid development of computer cartography that ultimately evolved into GIS technology.

The legacy of early development continued with the 2010 Census where TIGER data and census geographic areas were integral parts of the largest civilian deployment of mobile GIS. The Census Bureau leadership role in geography and geospatial science continues with the planning of the 2020 Census. Utilizing continuing engagement with tribal, state, and local governments through geographic program enhancements, support of research to improve geospatial products, and contributions to GIS conferences, the bureau continues to embrace changing technologies and techniques and strives to make greater amounts of data available to all.

1 Anderson, M.J. 1988. The American census: a social history. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2 Donald F. Cooke, Topology and TIGER: The Census Bureau’s Contribution, in The History of Geographic Information Systems, Timothy W. Foreseman, editor, Prentice Hall (1998).

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