Using Social Explorer

Social Explorer is a subscription-based service provided through Oxford University Press. It also has a free component. It provides historical census data (among other data sets) in a georeferenced format, allowing users to make customizable maps and reports without GIS training. The system also now supports uploads of external data sets! Below is a quick tutorial.

  1. The U.S. Census is a population survey that has been carried out every ten years since 1790. The questions and census geographies have changed many times.
  2. Create an account if you wish to save your projects on the site.
  3. “Explore United States” maps will allow you to examine census data. (If you choose “create new map” you will be able to edit the title/description of your map.)
  4. Use the “change data” button to select the year of the census you will use. Keep in mind–data is not aggregated at the census tract level until 1940. This means popular maps such as “percent white residents” cannot be generated at that level until that date. Also, the site shows only census data as it was made available at the time. Not all variables or divisions of data will be found. Data selection will take time.
  5. Choose the variable you wish to study. Once you select a data category, you can make more granular choices below. These options reflect the data tables prepared by the census at that time.
  6. Choose the census geography you wish to visualize. Census data is available at the national, state, county, census tract, block group, census place, and other levels. These levels are not available for every data set, but typically, smaller census units are more readily available for recent data.
  7. Choose the visualization type you wish to create (shaded/choropleth, bubbles, dot density).
  8. You can use the spy glass/search box on the right to locate a street address.
  9. You can also use the search box to identify an area, such as Roxbury. By choosing “save as annotation” the boundaries will continue to be shown.
  10. Alternately, the “your location” compass in the lower right will center the map where you are.
  11. Use the hamburger menu –> annotations to add features to your map. You can draw lines, add polygons, add markers with labels, etc. Have fun with this!
  12. To export your image, use the download button at the top. This will export as a PNG file.
  13. Alternately, use the “change map view” feature in the lower right-hand corner to try a slider or side-by-side display. (These export as single images.)
  14. Stories let you build a presentation that can be downloaded as a PowerPoint.
  15. Data can also be downloaded as CSV tabular files (used with Excel, Tableau, R, etc.).


Working on your own or with a partner, find the answers to the following questions.

  1. What was the median house value of the census block group area containing the James Blake House (735 Columbia Road, Dorchester, MA) in 2010?
  2. How did racial demographics change in Roxbury between 1950 and 1970?
  3. Return to the dashboard and choose Health Data. Compare the cancer rates for New Orleans and Boston.

External Data Sets

Social Explorer now lets you import external data sets! Any tabular data (CSV file) with location fields (either columns of latitude and longitude, or a column of street addresses) can be imported and mapped on top of census data. Try this example:

  1. Go to the City of Boston’s Open Data page:
  2. Locate the “Public Libraries” data set. You will see that this has file download options that are typically used with mapping software (KML, GeoJSON, ESRI). That tells us that this data will have geographic coordinates!
  3. Download the file to your computer.
  4. Examine your data in Excel. This is a best practice–the better you understand your data table, the easier it will be to create a visualization. Note which fields are geographic.
  5. Other data sets may be very large. Social Explorer cannot handle very large data sets, so you would probably want to cut those down to just the fields you needed to display.
  6. Go to Social Explorer and create a new map of the United States.
  7. Use the hamburger menu–>map options–>upload data to import your Boston Libraries data set.
  8. You can add styled markers showing the locations of the various libraries.
  9. You can map this data on top of census data to see where our public libraries are–are they in wealthy neighborhoods? Areas with lots of kids? High population density?