Data and diversity

by Jewél Jackson

April 12, 2019

Wall Street Journal data journalist Paul Overberg talks data science at the Race and the Media Symposium.

Paul Overberg presenting a screen of data
Paul Overbereg Photo by Hieu Nguyen

As the kickoff to the second day of the Newhouse School’s Race and Media Symposium, Wall Street Journal data reporter Paul Overberg gave a brief presentation about how the U.S. Census calculates diversity.

Overberg opened his talk by showing the audience a project he worked on with fellow data journalist and magazine, news and digital journalism professor Jodi Upton. The interactive map of the U.S., which maps rates of diversity from 1960 to 2060 using data and predictions from the U.S. Census, can be viewed on the USA Today website.

Overberg defined diversity as “the percentage chance that any two people from a given area would be different.”

“The Census Bureau is the ground truth and base count of all the other federal statistical systems,” Overberg said, “but the definitions of what gets counted and how is set by the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.”

“Imagine how confusing it would be if different agencies were counting race differently,” he said.

Overberg displayed different statistics of diversity and race, which included rates of immigration, increased change of people identifying themselves as more than one race and the various languages spoken in the U.S

Overberg said terms like Black, Asian and Hispanic aren’t capturing diversity within those labels.

“These terms that worked for the United States 30 and 40 years ago when they were set up, like Asian and Hispanic, are really umbrella terms that we should probably be thinking about breaking down, because there is diversity within the Asian population and Hispanic population that we kind of group under those umbrellas,” he said.

But while Overberg made it clear that the ways we construct and calculate race need to be modified to reflect our changing and increasingly diverse population, he noted the importance of the census.

“The Census Bureau is like the mirror that we hold to our face as a society every 10 years.”

Overberg explained that the data calculated by the Census Bureau helps to adjust boundaries such as school districts, federal and state funding or even how many seats should be allotted to certain districts in the House of Representatives.

“We should care about the census because it’s a civic duty, like voting or serving on the jury.”

Jewél Jackson is a sophomore newspaper and online journalism student at the Newhouse School.