How to Pick a US Census Tool (adapted from Michelle Hayslett, UNC Chapel Hill)
What year do you need?
American FactFinder has only the most recent years of its surveys; Social Explorer has all the population ones.
What geography do you need?
American FactFinder has all available geographies (except block groups for ACS data prior to 2013); block groups are available in Social Explorer and DataFerrett, or through the Summary File Retrieval Tool.
Which variable(s) do you need?
American FactFinder has all available variables; Social Explorer doesn’t have variables that involve some suppression. NHGIS is working to include all but is a work in progress.
Do you need to make a map without using GIS?
Social Explorer and American FactFinder both have this capability; American FactFinder is harder but has some variables (from current surveys!) that Social Explorer does not.
Do you need to make a map with GIS?
Only NHGIS allows download of shapefiles.
Do you need microdata?
Have to use public use microdata sample (PUMS) through DataFerrett or IPUMS (only available geographies are public use microdata areas [PUMAs], super-PUMAs or higher levels of geography, e.g., states),
Are the pre-fabricated tables sufficient or do you need to create your own?
Only DataFerrett allows you to create your own, but only with PUMS data, so only with PUMS geographies.
What survey do you need?
American FactFinder has most of the (current) Bureau surveys; Social Explorer has all of the decennial population surveys, 1790 to present plus a few other things; DataFerrett* has decennial and ACS data, the Current Population Survey and a few other Bureau surveys (SIPP, SAIPE, et al.), plus non-Bureau data like the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data; the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation; and much more.
How precise do you need to be?
Social Explorer's composite tables don’t provide margins of error (MOEs) with the data. However, you can select ACS tables in Social Explorer, which do include the MOEs. You can also get data with MOEs from NHGIS or AFF.