The Census has made a very nice API for data scientists to access their data tables. The censusr package will help R users access this API in a convenient and R-like way.

The API works by sending a specially-formatted URL to the the Census API server, which returns an XML or JSON document containing the requested information. In practice, any table available on American FactFinder is available through the API, though the user will need to find the raw name for the variable in the Census API guide.


These instructions are modified from hadley’s API best practices documentation.

  1. Users of this package will need to request an API key, which is available for free from the Census Bureau on request. Go to http://api.census.gov/data/key_signup.html to register. Copy this token to your clipboard.

  2. Identify your home directory. If you are not sure what it is, enter normalizePath("~/") in an R session. If in RStudio, use the R console.

  3. Create a new text file. If in RStudio, do File > New File > Text file.

  4. Create a line like this:


where the name CENSUS_TOKEN reminds you which API this is for and blahblahblahblahblahblah is your token, pasted from the clipboard. Make sure the last line in the file is empty. (If it is not empty, R will silently fail to load the file. If you’re using an editor that shows line numbers, there should be two lines, where the second one is empty.)

  1. Save this file in your home directory with the filename .Renviron. If questioned, YES you do want to use a filename that begins with a dot ..

Note that by default dotfiles are usually hidden. But within RStudio, the file browser will make .Renviron visible and therefore easy to edit in the future.

  1. Restart R. .Renviron is processed only at the start of an R session.

  2. Use Sys.getenv() to access your token. For example,

call_census_api(..., api_key = Sys.getenv("CENSUS_TOKEN") ...)

FAQ: Why define this environment variable via .Renviron instead of in .bash_profile or .bashrc?

Because there are many combinations of OS and ways of running R where the .Renviron approach “just works”" and the bash stuff does not. When R is a child process of, say, Emacs or RStudio, you can’t always count on environment variables being passed to R. Put them in an R-specific start-up file and save yourself some grief.


The package works by sending a list of requested variables and a list of geographies. The call below requests the number of households owning 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 or more vehicles in Wake County, North Carolina (geoid = 37183). We specify that we want this table for 2012 5-year summary level.

  paste("B08201_", sprintf("%03d", 2:6),  "E", sep = ""),
  names = c(0:4), geoids = "37183",  
  data_source = "acs", year =  2012, period = 5) 

We can use the allgeos argument to say that we actually want these variables for all census tracts within Wake County.

est <- call_census_api(
  paste("B08201_", sprintf("%03d", 2:6),  "E", sep = ""),
  names = paste0("est_", c(0:4)), geoids = "37183",  allgeos = "tr",
  data_source = "acs", year =  2012, period = 5) 

If we want the margins of error on this table instead of the estimates, we can change the variable to call the M type instead of the E type.

moe <- call_census_api(
  paste("B08201_", sprintf("%03d", 2:6),  "M", sep = ""),
  names = paste0("moe_", c(0:4)), geoids = "37183",  allgeos = "tr",
  data_source = "acs", year =  2012, period = 5)