The API Briefing: The Census Bureau’s Discovery Tool – Find the Right API for Your App

Jun 25, 2014

The Census Bureau recently released a “machine-readable dataset discovery service” that lists 41 Census data sets. It’s in spreadsheet form and gives a description of the datasets along with links to the API and developer documentation. What makes the discovery service machine readable is that’s based on Project Open Data’s “Common Core Metadata Schema” that uses a standard way to describe and index government information sources. The discovery service makes it easier for developers to find and mix different APIs together to create sophisticated apps.

Home screen of the U.S. Census Bureau's dwellr app for Android devices
A good example is the dwellr app. Dwellr lets a user create a personalized list of cities that fit their particular lifestyle. The app does this by searching 13 APIs that provide information on commuting statistics, occupations, and community demographics. Using GPS, the user can see information about the community they are in now.

A particular favorite app of mine is America’s Economy. This beautifully-designed app displays 19 key economic indicators in a variety of graphs and charts. It’s an excellent example of making Census Bureau data accessible. It’s also an excellent demonstration of responsive Web design as the app’s displays are designed for both smartphones and tablets.

Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics demonstrates how to merge the Census APIs with Google Maps to display Census data geographically. Using the 2008-2012 Community Survey, Cornell maps information on various poverty statistics in the upper New York. The user can also filter the display by sex and age.

The Census Bureau has done an exceptional job in making Census data accessible, easy to incorporate into applications, and mesh well with other APIs. In adopting the Common Core Metadata Schema, Census is leading the way in helping developers discover the federal government’s vast information resources.Each week in “The API Briefing,” I will showcase government APIs and the latest API news and trends. Visit this blog every week to learn how government APIs are transforming government and improving government services for the American people. If you have ideas for a topic or have questions about APIs, please contact me via email.

Dr. William A. Brantley, PMP, is a Program Analyst, in Forecasting and Methods at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). You can find out more about his work in this space at