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University Libraries

American Community Survey (ACS)


American Community Survey: Part 1--The Basics (University at Buffalo. Arts and Sciences Libraries)
Introduces the American Community Survey, describes the subjects covered and the multiple ACS datasets, key differences between the decennial census and ACS. Test your understanding by working through the five exercises and reviewing the answers. Consult Part 2 for additional information.

American Community Survey–Data Collection Procedures (U.S. Census Bureau)
A one page flier that summarizes the process.

American Community Survey e-Tutorial (U.S. Census Bureau)
Topics cover introductory information, information for respondents, understanding ACS, accessing data, further information, and a brief quiz.

American Community Survey (ACS) Home Page (U.S. Census Bureau)
Links describe how to access and use the data, and point to news releases and technical documentation appropriate for data novices, as well as sophisticated users.

American Community Survey: Uses and Users (Association of Public Data Users)
Describes who uses American Community Survey statistics and how they do so. Examples include the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, state and local governments, researchers, the media, and legal requirements for data collected in ACS.

Introduction to the American Community Survey: CQ Press Guide to the American Community Survey (ACS) of the U.S. Census Bureau

Presentations for data users
Links to presentations about the American Community Survey prepared by Census Bureau staff.

Taeuber, Cynthia. American Community Survey Data for Community Planning. Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2006.
Five sections deal with ACS basics, locating data, understanding the data, interpreting the data in written reports, and common errors. Taeuber also includes a glossary. This is one of the best books about the American Community Survey intended for novice audiences. It is recommend highly for both government document and general reference collections.

Ten Things to Know about the American Community Survey (2005 Edition) (Missouri State Library. Missouri Census Data Center)
Although the information refers to the 2005 annual period average, it is still applies to more current periods. See also Ten More Things to Know (and Do) About the American Community Survey Keys to Understanding and Accessing the Data at

Beyond the Basics

2006-2010 ACS 5-Year Summary File Technical Documentation (U.S. Census Bureau)

American Community Survey: Part 2--Statistical Concepts That Help Interpret the Data (University at Buffalo. Arts and Sciences Libraries)
Discuses basic concepts that help data users interpret and apply the statistics. Coverage includes:

  • Reading and understanding different parts of a table, such as the universe, margins of error, and confidence intervals.
  • Coefficients of variation (CV) that measure dispersion or variation of results. Some CV's can be too large for the data to be meaningful.
  • A tip for dealing with huge CV's.
  • Statistical significance that indicates if variables actually changed between periods. For example, the ACS 1-year period average measures the poverty level in Erie County, NY in 2008 as 13.6% and in 2009 as 13.9%. However, it is incorrect to conclude that poverty increased because the differences are not statistically significant.

Test your understanding by working through the exercises and reviewing the answers. Consult Part 1 for ACS basics.

Compass Product Series (U.S. Census Bureau)
A series of handbooks that provide detailed information for different audiences. Topics cover:

  • What Congress Needs to Know
  • What Federal Agencies Need to Know
  • What General Data Users Need to Know
  • What School Teachers Need to Know
  • What Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) Data Users Need to Know
  • What Puerto Rico Community Survey Data Users Need to Know
  • What Researchers Need to Know
  • What State and Local Governments Need to Know
  • What the Business Community Needs to Know
  • What the Media Need to Know
  • What Users of Data for American Indians and Alaska Natives Need to Know
  • What Users of Data for Rural Areas Need to Know

Documentation Page (U.S. Census Bureau)
Covers subject definitions, instructions for statistical testing, and statistical accuracy. The discussions of statistical testing and accuracy are very technical. Statistical novices will find descriptions that are more lucid in Taeuber’s book.

Herman, Edward. “The American Community Survey: An Introduction to the Basics,” Government Information Quarterly. 25 (2008), 504-519.
Emphasis is upon the importance of ACS, how ACS differs from the decennial census, how ACS relates to other Census Bureau Surveys, and the future of ACS.

Data Sources

American FactFinder (U.S. Census Bureau)
American FactFinder is the Census Bureau's key dissemination tool for the American Community Survey, plus many other datasets. Contact Edward Herman at 646-7395 or at for help.

Consult an American FactFinder tutorial about locating block statistics for Buffalo's Parkside area at

Census Bureau FTP
Download data through FTP. Doing so requires knowledge of the census and Excel or comparable spreadsheet/database software.

Circular Area Profiles (CAPS) (Missouri Census Data Center)
Enter a zip code or a latitude/longitude to locate data that covers a specified radius.

Cornell Program on Applied Demographics
Retrieve information for areas within New York State.

Local Labs (Consortium of 5 universities-Stanford, University California Berkeley, Princeton, UC Davis, and Chicago)
Provides summarized data for states, counties, cities, and zip codes. Topics deal with income, work, education, transportation, housing, race, family, language, population, sex, and age.  Statistics are from the American Community Survey 5-year period averages.  Designers created the Web site for use by lay people.

Missouri Census Data Center (Missouri. Secretary of State. State Library)
Use both Web sites to locate information for the nation, regions, divisions, states, and counties.

Social Explorer (Oxford University Press)
Create data tables and maps of ACS data.

Summary File Retrieval Tool (U.S. Census Bureau)
Software available from the Census Bureau provides detailed information from ACS datasets. See the American Community Survey Summary File Excel Retrieval Tool User Guide at This source is intended for advanced data users.