to keep geography programs coordinated with state and local governments to foster better and more efficient use of data. Proposed changes in the Census data collection and dissemination process represent an example of the potential for expanded use of various federal data sources to address cross-disciplinary public policy issues. Exploring the support, standards, and controls that are needed to encourage similar efforts, as well as how to finance such efforts, may provide a true base for challenging the separate and individualized systems currently in use. In addition and specifically, privacy issues and current regulatory barriers should be addressed.

The federal statistical system that produces data from the social, environmental, and economic sectors in the United States is highly decentralized. More than 70 different federal agencies collect, analyze, and disseminate data (Cortright and Reamer, 1988). This effort is the result of the historical development of the federal data system tracing back to the mid-nineteenth century (Norwood, 1995.) Decentralization offers advantages and drawbacks. Although it is challenging for users to gather information spread over a wide range of agency sources, decentralization allows individual agencies to specialize in terms of fulfilling the data users’ needs, making the federal statistical system a rich source of data for regional and local decision making.

Three federal statistical agencies have primary responsibility for providing regional social and economic data; the Bureau of the Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. These are all agencies of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and their contributions are summarized below. (For details on the historical antecedents of our current federal statistical system see Norwood, 1995. For more details on federal agency provision of socioeconomic data see Cortright and Reamer, 1988.)


Bureau of the Census (Census)


The Census Bureau provides data on population (e.g., age, race, educational attainment), quality of life (e.g., housing, health, crime), and economic activities (e.g., income, jobs, businesses) derived from the national decennial (10-year) Census. The decennial Census has two purposes: (1) to count the U.S. population and (2) to determine demographic, housing, social, and economic information.

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