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USP 193: San Diego Community Research: Social Explorer

Searching for Census data

The Census Bureau's offers free access to some data, but it's important to know that the data available there includes nothing for years prior to 2000.

Social Explorer is a subscription database that the library pays for. It offers access to more comprehensive Census data, including data back to 1790. This database is also (in my opinion) much easier to use than, so I recommend that you start with Social Explorer to find Census/demographic data.

Social Explorer

Important information about the Social Explorer database:

As of January 2023, I'm having trouble with some database features when using the Chrome browser. Firefox seems to be working as expected.

You can use Social Explorer to run reports on geographic areas as small as Census block groups.  Social Explorer can also help you identify Census tracts back to 1950.

To access the database from off-campus, you will need to have your computer configured to use the UCSD VPN. If you need help with that, please refer to the remote access instructions. Note that you MUST select 2-Step Secured - Allthruucsd from the "Group" drop-down menu when authenticating. If you're correctly connected via the VPN, you should see the UC San Diego notation below in the banner on Social Explorer's home page.


To identify tracts:

1. Click on “Explore” under the United States map.

2. Drill down to the area of interest. You can use the top "search address" box, double click on an area, or use the zoom + to drill down to your area. (Click and drag map to re-center.)  As you zoom in, you’ll eventually see details like street names. As you mouse over an area, you'll see popups that identify the Census tract numbers. Use Google maps or print maps as necessary to help identify streets, if necessary.

3. To see map for a different year, click the "Change Data" button on the top left. If the "change data" option isn't visible, click the button as shown below. Slide the blue scale to the desired year and select desired variable. Repeat step 2 above.


To get data:

(And again, remember that tract-level data is not available for ACS 1-year or 3-year estimates.)

There are two ways to get Census data after you've identified the census tracts. 

First option: while you're still on the map showing the tracts of interest > 

  • in the "change data" box, click the icon with three horizontal lines and select "create a report"
  • use the "source" and "topic" dropdowns to select your data source (i.e., ACS or decennial year) and topic ("comprehensive" will probably give you most of what you need)
  • choose your geography level (e.g. census tracts) and zoom in on the map and click to highlight the areas you want data for
  • click the "create" button, and you will get demographic data on a new page

Second option, which I find much easier: after you have identified the tract numbers, you could elect to quit the mapping application >

  • go back to the home page, click "Tables" at the top
  • select the decennial year or ACS year that you want to work with, then click "begin report"
  • use the drop-down menus to select "census tract/California/San Diego County" and ctrl/click to highlight the tracts you want
  • click "Add" and "Proceed to Tables" 
  • on the next page, ctrl/click to highlight the desired data sets; click "Add" and "Show results" OR click the "Premade Reports" tab and select desired report(s), such as "comprehensive"
  • note that you can also use the "search by keyword" option to search for age, housing, transportation, and other variables
  • note also that there are probably different tables available depending on which data set you're viewing; SE defaults to "Social Explorer tables," which are the most "popular" tables. If you don't see the variable you're looking for, try choosing a different data set with the drop-down menu for a more comprehensive list of tables. Summary File 1 & 2 data sets represent the short form questions (age, race, etc.), while Summary File 3 & 4 data sets represent the long form questions (education, income, etc.)
  • after getting your data, use the Excel or data download tab to save your results.

Reminder: the Census Bureau's decennial Index of Questions and ACS questionnaires can be extremely helpful in figuring out what questions were asked for each census and therefore what data might be available.