Tips and tricks to understanding Census data: how to visualise a story

Tips and tricks to understanding Census data: how to visualise a story

Georgia Allan 31 Oct, 2017

Let’s face it, analysing and managing Census data can be a complex beast. At .id, we invest a huge amount of time understanding and applying Census data, so we thought we’d share some of our secrets to help occasional-users cut through the complexities and come out with useful insights…

Some ins and outs of Census data

While Census data provides a great information resource, navigating through the data can often be complex and overwhelming. This can be exacerbated by intricacies in the data – for example, between Censuses, the ABS make changes and improvements to things like the topics, questions and data collection methods that can add an element of complexity. This can mean that when analysing Census data over time, you are not always comparing apples with apples.

The underlying geography used to locate Census data is another factor that can change over time. Geographic borders can change as places are redefined over time, such as when Local Government Areas are amalgamated or separated. As the population grows, the ABS also change the statistical areas that group people into roughly even numbers.  These changes can make it difficult if you are trying to analyse a place, and how it has changed over time, using consistent information.

Over the years, we have worked out ways to iron out these factors to make using Census data less painful. These smarts are built into all of our information tools, saving you the time and effort of digging through datasets and crunching numbers to account for changes. This leaves you more time to focus on what the data has to say…

Where to start?

With so much data available, knowing where to start can be half the problem.

A good starting point is to work out what is important – narrow down and decide the key questions you need to answer to provide focus. You probably have 20 questions you are wondering about so, reducing this down to 2 or 3 key questions helps prioritise what you need to find out.

Once you have narrowed down your focus to the right data, how do you reveal what the data is showing? Building a narrative to tell a story from the data is a great way to provide direction and emphasis for your analysis.

What is the data telling you?

There are many ways to tell the story of a place and different people have their own techniques and tricks.

My number one tip to help draw out a story and bring Census data to life is to visualise the data spatially.

The best way to visualise Census data is to display it using a map. This simple yet powerful tip can help you unearth interesting insights that are often hidden deep in the data. Viewing data through a spatial lens adds a new dimension to your analysis that often reveals patterns that can help you tell the story of a place.

“Sounds hard” I hear you say.

Don’t worry, we are here to help…

How do you tell a story from the data?

Let’s take an example. Say you’re a planner who is considering whether to open a new childcare facility in the Perth CBD to support young families living in the inner-city suburbs of Perth and working in the CBD.

.id’s free social atlas tool is a great place to start to check out the demographics of the area. If you are looking at a place within a Local Government Area, select the LGA area in which the suburb is situated to find the right geographic location in the social atlas.

In the Map selector, you will find ‘Age structure’ which lets you focus on an age group. For this example, we can use 0 to 4 year olds. Keeping the ‘Data type’ as usual residence will show where children this age normally reside, and selecting 2016 shows data from the latest Census.

So now you can see a heat map for the distribution of 0 to 4 year olds in the area that can be a proxy indicator of where Childcare centres may be required to respond to demand.


Finding a pattern

Understanding how the spatial distribution of this age group changes over time can reveal a trend or pattern that can help you tell a story. Using the ‘Year’ drop down menu from the toolbar, access the ‘Change 2011 – 2016’ option to change the map view and assess if there is a pattern of movement or change.


Both maps show that there is a high concentration in young children in the City of Perth. There has also been an increase in this age group between 2011 and 2016 – especially in the CBD itself.

What if your place doesn’t ‘fit’?

When planning for facilities and services, the location in question won’t always fit neatly into a Local Government Area or suburb. What if the catchment area for the place you are interested in does not exactly align to a whole suburb, or straddles two or more LGA’s? Or, you’re analysing a dataset that will likely require a ‘bigger picture’ view of your area, such as journey to work data.

In the case below, the City of Perth does not cover all the immediately surrounding suburbs, and journey to work patterns will be just as important as residential patterns.

One of our most common requests is for more flexibility in creating geographic boundaries for a place that better align to your planning scenario.

Using our latest web-based application, you can build your own custom geographic area resembling the real-life area you are working with. It’s called .id Placemaker, and it lets you define your own boundaries for a place to create a custom catchment that directly aligns to your analysis.

To investigate if a Childcare centre should be located in in the Perth CBD, we can assess the catchment area within a 3km radius of a proposed site.  Based on the proposed new location, I can select all SA1 areas within a 3km radius from the proposed site.

Learn how .id Placemaker can help you visualise Census data.



With the selection made, I can generate a Demographic Report to summarise the age structure of the catchment area to help in my assessment.


The report shows that while the proportion of young children in this area is lower than the Greater Perth average, there is a significant number of children (2,500) which suggests there may be demand for a child care centre.

So where to from here?

There are a wide range of demographic variables you could look at. For example, you could look at incomes in the area to see if your service fees could be met. This is easily done using .idPlacemaker’s reporting system.


Incomes in the inner suburbs of Perth are very high, making it likely that families with young children could afford childcare fees.

If you need help understanding data from the Census and drawing out a narrative to better understand a place, contact our consulting team.

explore census data spatially

.id is a team of population experts, who use a unique combination of online tools and consulting to help organisations decide where and when to locate their facilities and services, to meet the needs of changing populations. We provide free resources to help you make the most of demographic data. Access .id’s demographic resources here.

Georgia Allan

Georgia completed a Masters in Population Studies and Demography at Flinders University in Adelaide. At .id, Georgia is a consultant in .id's housing team. She was heavily involved in the creation and continued development of, the online tool developed to give councils an accessible evidence base for planning and advocacy. Georgia has prepared housing demand and supply analysis for a range of councils, including those in inner-city, middle ring, growth and peri-urban areas. When not in the office, she is likely to be cooking, knitting, crocheting, or buried in a good book.

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