Title: Facts for Features
Publisher: U.S. Census Burea
Tested: Sept. 18-21, 2003
The U.S. Census Bureau, one of the most Web-savvy government agencies, presents for free humongous amounts of demographic data in a palatable way, and holds your hand while guiding you to the most relevant statistical collection. You'll particularly appreciate this after paying $80 per connect-hour charges and $14.25 per record for a fee-based census database hosted by a prominent online service, even when it had nothing but zeros in the columns (although for many variables) for thousands of records for a region, or had obviously nonsensical data (as I illustrated earlier). The latest special resource generated from the census files is the Facts for Features collection. It is an odd name, but the content is good.
This resource is a spin-off of the Census Bureau tipsheet Web service launched in 1996 and is meant for reporters, editors and news directors. Just like other news stories, it came down literally on the wire from Reuters, AP and UPI, or press releases by PR staff eager to get something about a company in the newspapers. I would not consider them as ready-reference sources, especially because the index of the tipsheets consisted only of a numeric identifier and the issue date — with no clue about the topics covered. The latest issue of the tipsheet indicates a good restructuring of the news content, but its index is still of little use.
This spin-off service is also aimed at press people, however, I find it an attractive ready-reference source that is very easy to browse in order to zoom in on the demographics one is interested in and get to the most interesting facts about many subjects.
What are these subjects? Mostly specific age, gender or ethnic groups: grandparents, American Indians, women, war veterans, school children, older Americans, disabled people, mothers and fathers, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans — those who have an officially declared day or month of celebration.
It is quite obvious that the Census Bureau took a page from the Harper's Index books, collections of funny stats published monthly in Harper's Magazine and on the Web back to April 1998. (This Web archive, unfortunately, is not searchable.)
Facts for Features (which goes back to 1996) debuted this new format in June 2001 with statistics about the elderly. The big difference is that the Census Bureau's Facts for Features is organized around observance days or months, and thus the statistical data relate to groups of people celebrated or paid respect to, rather than just an interesting medley of facts as presented by Harper's.
Some of the pages start with a little background information, like the page about grandparents, explaining who introduced Granparent's Day legislation and when it was proclaimed a day of observance.
It then provides vital statistics about the group of people classified into subcategories, such as grandparents as care givers amounting to 5.7 million, more than 40% of whom are responsible for the well-being of their grandchildren. Although it is quite obvious that the majority of these are grandmothers (not for the male chauvinist reason that child care is women's business, but for the statistically proven fact that men die sooner than women), the ratio is still surprising.
This is followed by statistics about multigenerational families and households (of which Hawaii is the national leader with 8.2% of the households being multigenerational, probably because few people want to move away from Hawaii). The grandparents page ends with a section of statistics on grandchildren which is a smart idea, especially as there is a proclaimed day for children and grandchildren in the U.S. This is quite surprising to me, but I am sure that many businesses have lobbyists working on Congressional representatives to propose such a perfect opportunity to spoil kids even more rotten by parents and grandparents buying toys, and giving Hallmark yet another opportunity to sell a few million cards of corny clichés.
Some of the stats are regular, appearing year after year with new or updated statistics, such as Mother's Day and Father's Day. Some appear only on a centennial day, like the one about the Census. Yet others appear two or three times in a row then not again. This is the case with Secretaries' Day, which had statistics in 1997, 1998 and 1999. (Perhaps the secretaries have had second thoughts about having their own special day as their bosses probably sent them to fetch some Hallmark cards for themselves.) Almost a week after the launch of the 2003 Hispanic Heritage Month there were no statistics about Hispanics, which has been quite a standard feature. This is odd because there are new and important statistics about this rapidly growing minority group.
There are several observance days that do not have statistics (yet), such as Bosses' Day — probably because the bosses dictate a thank you note to their secretaries thanking them for their gifts, most likely just as their secretaries were leaving for the day.
The site is only browsable. However, searching is not sorely missing given the good organization of the collection. I would like to see an anchor point at each entry instead of just linking to the top of the page itself. Then a link could take users directly to some of the most interesting facts, such as the fact that half of the Asian-American population lives in three metropolitan areas.
This is not merely a useful site, but an engaging one that will motivate people to scroll through a few more pages and learn something even after they have found the statistical information they needed.