Tableau, Census Data, and Web Data Connectors

Tableau, Census Data, and Web Data Connectors

Tableau seems to be very hot right now. At least I seem to see it listed frequently when I’m looking through job postings. From my perspective, Tableau takes a lot of the presentation power of Excel (not so much the high power modeling features of Excel) and moves it into a more contemporary platform, by which I mean it is browser-based. I’ve developed many, many scorecards, charts, visualizations, reports, and analytical tools within Excel and it makes perfect sense to adapt these kinds of deliverables into a browser-based tool.

Tableau has a public version that you can download for free and use to create and publish workbooks to Tableau Public for everyone to see. I’m still learning the features, and there are a lot of learning resources on the web if you search around.

One thing I wanted to do was to tap into a great, diverse data source and create some Tableau workbooks to play around with. My commute map used US Census data from the American Community Survey, and when it was making the rounds back in June I was contacted by the Census Bureau asking if I was aware of their API. I wasn’t, though I wasn’t surprised to learn of one. I decided to tap into this data as I learn Tableau, because the Census Data has great breadth of information but also has a terrific multi-tiered geographic component.

Tableau has the ability out of the box to accept data from a wide variety of data sources, but it also has a way for developers to build a conduit into Tableau from any data source. This standardized data conduit into Tableau is called a “Web Data Connector” and a number of organizations have built these to enable Tableau users to import data. I looked for a Web Data Connector (WDC) for the Census API, but wasn’t able to find a working version. Always one to support scope-creep, I decided to build one myself and I did. It connects to the ACS Profile data for the five year estimate ending in 2014.

Unfortunately, I built it based on their WDC version 1.1 just as they were transitioning to a new version (2.0) with more features. If this gets any real use, I’ll look at upgrading the connector to 2.0. Below is a step by step on how to retrieve Census Data into Tableau using my WDC:

Importing Census Data into Tableau


Choose "web data connector"
Choose “Web Data Connector”

Obviously, in order to use the WDC, you have to have Tableau loaded and if you do and you start a new workbook, you should see that you can choose “Web Data Connector.”










When you do choose “web data connector”, you’ll see a screen that asks for the WDC’s URL. To use my Census Data WDC, you’ll want to enter:

Enter “” as the URL for the web data connector.


Select Geographic criteria and variables you'd like to retrieve in the web connector interface.
Select Geographic criteria and variables you’d like to retrieve in the web connector interface.

Once the data connector interface loads, you can choose a Geography (State, County, SubCounty, Tract, Zip Code, etc.) that you would like to retrieve and choose which variables you would like to include. The variables are one of the harder things to manage here. There are lots of them (about 2,500) and the names are cryptic. The list of variables for this particular Census dataset can be used as a reference.

You can use the hyperlinked text just above the variable list to include or exclude variable types. For example, if you want to include only “Estimates” then unselect the other three types “MarginOfError”, “PercentEstimate”, and “PercentMarginOfError”.

“Estimate” is the nominal value you’re probably most interested in. For example, if the variable is “population”, then the “estimate” would be the estimated number of people living in the selected geography.

Once you’ve selected your criteria, click on the “Retrieve Census Data” button at the top of the web data connector interface. The system will then retrieve the data from the Census API and convert it into a format that Tableau can readily accept. You can then click on “UPDATE NOW” when the data is returned to finish creating the data table inside your new Tableau workbook.

Many of the geography types provided by this WDC are supported for mapping in Tableau so you can create heat maps and other visual representations quickly and easily once you have the data imported. Some of them work automatically, others need a little help. Feel free to email me or post a comment if you have questions on this.

I also created a shapefile web data connector for the US Census Tracts, a geography that isn’t natively supported within Tableau. I’ll be posting on how to use this to map Census data by Census Tract.

If this tool gets any significant use, I’ll consider adding a dropdown at the top to allow users to choose data from other US Census datasets (10 year full census or other ACS datasets.) Let me know if you have any suggestions on how to extend this functionality. Here’s a link to a quick map I put together using this data. It shows Census Tracts in Washtenaw County, Michigan by percentage of residents with graduate degrees. The bluer regions have higher levels of the population with grad degrees and the greener areas have lower levels. Can you guess where the University of Michigan is on this map?


3 thoughts on “Tableau, Census Data, and Web Data Connectors

  1. lol at the ‘always one to support scope-creep’ line… sounds familiar!

    I work for the City of LA data team and this is hugely helpful, thank you. Please keep it going and reach out if you’d like to collaborate!

    A few pieces of feedback-
    1. It appears you can click a parent checkbox to select all below, but you cannot click it again to deselect all. Instead, you need to individually open each nested variable and de-select measures individually.
    2. On a similar note, you’re only notified that there is a limit of 49 variables once you go over that limit. So, for example, I went down the list and selected a ton of things because I didn’t realize the limit and then I needed to individually deselect. It would be great if it said something like ‘x variables selected out of 49 max’ as you’re going

    1. Hey Chelsea, Thanks for the note! I’m glad you find it helpful. I’d love to collaborate on something if you have ideas. Let me know!

      I appreciate the feedback. I just tried it, and I’m not able to duplicate the behavior you describe with the parent checkbox. When I click the parent, all children are selected. When I click it again, all children are unselected. The behavior is a bit different if there are some children deselected and some selected: the parent shows a block instead of a check, but you can still click the parent to select all and again to deselect. I’m using Chrome for MacOS. Let me know what browser/OS you’re using. (Just realized the browser is not an issue since it runs inside Tableau.)

      I made a quick video just to confirm we’re talking about the same thing.

      On the variable count issue, it does flip but because you’ve scrolled down it isn’t visible. I think that is the issue. I’ll think about how to make that more visible as you’re going. Thanks for pointing this out.



    2. Chelsea, I made a quick change to the connector so that the info on variable count is fixed to the top of the window on the right side. Now you should be able to see how many variables you have chosen and the warning message will pop up when you hit the limit. By the way, the variable count limitation is set by the Census Bureau’s site.

      Let me know if you have any problems using the connector.

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