When I wrote last month about the Census Bureau's horrible website, I got a lot of messages from other reporters and policy researchers agreeing that Census.gov makes them want to tear their hair out.
But it gets worse! Today, I learned that the new version of American FactFinder -- just one borderline-unusable section of the much larger universe of brain-melting user experiences that is Census.gov -- was developed by IBM at a cost to taxpayers of $33.3 million. Census has a website that isn't just terrible, it's also extremely expensive.
But there is one ray of hope: After I wrote my initial post, I got an e-mail from a public affairs officer at Census, highlighting the bureau's launch in May of an application programming interface (API) that will allow outside parties to build alternative front-end systems for accessing Census data. You can think of this as Census admitting that it's bad at websites and allowing outside entities to take over its web development.
For example, the Brookings-Urban Tax Policy Center has a tool called the State and Local Finance Data Query System. All the data available in SLFDQS come from Census, but unlike the Census website itself, SLFDQS is easy to use. The problem is that TPC has to manually update SLFDQS every time there is a new Census of State and Local Governments release, which is labor intensive and results in a data delay. With an API, SLFDQS could access Census data directly and automatically, and tools like this could become more popular.
Unfortunately, the data currently available through the API are very limited. But if Census expands this tool, eventually we could all be freed from the need to struggle with Census.gov, and Census wouldn't have to overpay IBM for any more terrible websites.
(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)
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