Democracy's Data is one of the New York Times's 100 notable books for 2022!!

You can find it out in the wild, lurking in your public library, begging to be bought at your neighborhood bookstore, and (of course) prowling on your favorite online sales platform.

Don't take my word for it. You can buy your own copy here!

Alexandra Jacobs at the New York Times called it "endearingly nerdy," and also "rich and ruminative." The headline declares it is "deft and surprisingly lively." I can't decide whether to faint or blush...

A stack of books lay on their sides, each bearing the title Democracy's Data by Dan Bouk.

Upcoming Events

  • Friday, October 20, 2023 at 12 pm
    Cornell Population Center
    A conversation with Jamie Budnick and Dan Hirschman
    386 Statler Hall
  • November 18, 1:15pm
    Social Science History Association Meeting
    Author Meets Critic Session
    Washington, D.C.
  • Wednesday, December 13, 2023 at 6 pm
    New York History of Science Lecture
    "Independent Accounts: How the NYC Budget Came to Look Like a Lever for Change"</a>
    Gallatin School, Room 801, NYU
  • Thursday, April 25, 2023 at 7 pm
    Cary Memorial Library, Lexington, MA
    "Reading the Stories Hidden in Democracy's Data"</a>

Events You Might Have Missed

They were recorded!

  • Watch Dan at the IAPP Global Summit, where he makes a pitch for why good statistics require robust data privacy.
  • Watch Dan and Maud Newton speak at a National Archives event in wide-ranging conversation about the census and the records we rely on to construct stories about our families, communities, and country.
  • Watch Dan tell the story of Democracy's Data for the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
  • Watch Dan talk with Alex Hanna, Director of Research at the Distributed AI Research Institute, in a conversation hosted by Data & Society's People and Culture Manager, Ronteau Coppin.
  • Watch Dan talk CLASSIFICATION with Geoff Bowker (a Bouk and Bowker event!) in conversation hosted by the New School's Sareeta Amrute and organized by Mona Sloane and the Co-Opting AI series.
  • Watch Dan and the New York Public Library's Julie Golia, talk about partners in historical census records in a conversation highlighting the sources teachers can use in their classrooms or consult at the NYPL.
  • Watch Dan moderate a National Archives panel of leading librarians on the topic "Family Histories and Beyond: Investigations in 1950 U.S. Census Sheets"

Democracy's Data in Bite-Sized Pieces

What's Up with that Beautiful Book?

Democracy's Data is a gorgeous object. That's due in large part to the cover designed by Ben Denzer. As the folks at Fonts in Use explain: "Bold compressed type combined with strategic color make for a memorable typographic image and an effective reading of a long title."

After were done ooh-ing and ahh-ing over a cover mockup, Robin Sloan and I set out to turn it into a data visualization. Click here to see the animated result!

People are saying nice things!


Counting the population of America, it seems, is akin to both conducting a symphony and watching a jazz ensemble go to town...

The book’s straightforward title undersells its playful contents. “Democracy’s Data” is ruminative and rich; it makes the dull old census a feast for the senses.


Solid storytelling chops and a friendly tone help Bouk convince readers who might question just how interesting a book about the census can be. Surprise — it can be! In the hands of someone who understands it, the census is a mirror of the country’s ideals, values, flaws and attributes....

Bouk uncovers the great paradox about the decennial count: that it is an impossibly large and messy task, but also an awe-inspiring achievement.


One of the "10 Must-Read Political Books to Get You Through the 2022 Mid-Term Elections"

A data analyst pores over the pivotal 1940 census and then zooms out, piecing together a revelatory biography of our national ritual, the 10-year accounting of the U.S.’s demographics and a once-in-a decade mosaic of the American people....A vibrant bird's-eye view of who we were and are and--most critically—-who we are becoming in the 21st century.


One of "Seven Books that Will Make You Smarter"

This searching, textured inquiry illuminates how much simple population figures can teach us.


Smart fun for genealogy nerds but also a must-read for anyone interested in the construction and systemic effects of big data.


Tedium, he believes, can be a smokescreen for things that somebody deliberately wants to hide, so he’s on a personal mission to cut through the superficial dullness. Bouk is certainly the right person for the job. His enthusiasm for bureaucratic data is irresistible, and his meticulously researched writing is witty, lively, and not at all boring....Fundamentally, this is not simply a history of the Census, but a book about information literacy—the social context of how data is created and used.

London Review of Books

[Counting]is not​ an ideologically neutral process. Dan Bouk’s history of the 1940 US census, Democracy’s Data, makes that point very thoroughly.


The practice of data storytelling often focuses on weaving a narrative by highlighting themes from a dataset. Author Dan Bouk flips this conventional practice on its head by instead telling a powerful story about the data itself.....

When we visualize various types of data and use those visualizations to tell stories, we should take a minute to consider the story of how that data came to be in the first place. Rather than uncritically assuming the objectivity of data we work with, this book calls us to strategically assess the frame of the dataset, the way in which the data was gathered, and how we are using it. This book is a crucial read for anyone within the data visualization community who wants to learn how to read the stories behind the data.


A deep dive into the 1940 U.S. census: how it was created, completed, deployed, and even weaponized and what it can teach us about American democracy....

A page-turning examination of why we need to understand the census and its wide-ranging effects.

SIMSON GARFINKEL, Program Scientist at AI2050

The focus of Democracy’s Data is the 1940 US Census, but the story of why the House is locked at 435 members is one of those bonus pieces of context that make this book such a compelling read. This book is filled with details about US history and the history of today’s social problems—a history that today is largely untaught and rarely discussed.

These kinds of details, personal reflections and context-filling make Democracy’s Data a pleasure to read, and highly informative.

DAVID POTASH, President, Wilbur Wright College

Best of all, Bouk captures individual stories in the data. He tracks down relatives, famous people and everyday Americans. Responses in the census give clues to living arrangements, families, racism, sexism, opportunity and challenge. It truly is a data book of America’s lives. His deep appreciation of that, of the information gathered and reported for individual people, gives the entire enterprise a warm and human glow. The census may be numbers, but those numbers represent the valuable and complicated lives of individual people.


It's a really lovely deep-dive into the 1940 US census, the social and political forces that shaped it, and how the questions captured the messy reality of American lives, or didn't....It's the kind of book that's just as good for us historians as it is as a gift for our dads. And the audiobook narration is great, too.

ELLEN ULLMAN, author of Close to the Machine

Dan Bouk's Democracy's Data is a revelation of the political and cultural forces that led to the 1940 census, and of the philosophical questions that underlie all attempts to classify people. What do we measure? And who has the power to decide?

Bouk tells us what is at stake: A battle for the very definition of personhood.

STEVEN JOHNSON, author of The Ghost Map and Extra Life

A tour de force of archival research that reads like a detective story, Democracy's Data reveals an entire secret history behind one of the most underappreciated institutions of modern civic life: the census. Following Dan Bouk through this riveting exploration of what it means to count and be counted has forever changed my understanding of the relationship between information and a democratic society.

RUHA BENJAMIN, author of Race after Technology and Viral Justice

A gifted storyteller, Dan Bouk reveals the political drama rumbling beneath a single census question and he illuminates the stakes erupting from a solitary statistic. It turns out before there was Big Data there was old-fashioned big data, no less political and consequential eighty years ago than it is today. The humanity behind the numbers has always mattered, but Democracy’s Data transformed my black & white understanding into technicolor! Everyone who cares about the plight of our democracy owes it to themself to read this essential book.

DANAH BOYD, author of It's Complicated and ethnographer of the 2020 Census

Who knew stories about government and statistics could be so engrossing?!?! Through intimate, finely-wrought storytelling, Bouk makes an esoteric infrastructure utterly enthralling. Democracy's Data takes you on a captivating journey, peeling back layers to help the reader see what lies behind the numbers.

MARGO ANDERSON, author of The American Census

In 1787, the framers of the Constitution decided that the new federal government would count the population every ten years and use the results to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College. 'We, the people,' the constitution asserts in its preamble, are the foundation of the American state. 150 years, 16 censuses later, the 1940 census continued to fulfill that mandate. But it turned out that the census did so much more. Dan Bouk has written an extraordinary book revealing just how prescient the framers were.

DANIEL RODGERS, author of Age of Fracture

With a gift for stories and abundance of acutely probing questions, Dan Bouk brings the making of the U.S. census alive. In sharply etched detail, he shows how democracy’s data was produced: from the experts who wrote the census questions, to the politicians who tried to shape and exploit their work, to the millions of doorstep negotiations between census takers and their subjects where ordinary Americans worked to fit themselves into--or resist--its categories. The politics of numbers has rarely been told as grippingly before.

ARI BERMAN, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

The U.S. Census is one of the most important yet least understood parts of American democracy and Dan Bouk masterfully tells this story through rich characters, eye-popping data, and deep historical analysis. A must-read for students of history and politics.

JER THORP, author of Living in Data

Page by page, Bouk polishes the seemingly dull census into a scintillating thing, gleaming with stories and sparkling with insight. Democracy's Data is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how data defines our democracy and our lives.

Marian B. Wood, Climbing My Family Tree

No boring, stale history here. His highly readable book puts the 1940 Census under the microscope as a great example of hidden stories of people and the nation--and how to tease out stories from the mass of data collected. Highly recommended!...of interest to all genealogy folks who use US Census data in their research

Kin Lane, "The API Evangelist"

This book was the closest I have come to a story of how I see APIs shaping the world around us. It was a powerful narrative of how data is shaping our lives, and silently and not so silently defining who we are. Democracy's Data provided me with a single slice of America seen through the lense of the 1940 census, which reflects something that is playing out over and over in real-time when it comes to social media and the other digital applications we use online.


All in all, Democracy’s Data was an engaging crash course in how to critically read data, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who collects, analyzes, or operates on data.


Bouk claims to specialize in studying “modern things shrouded in cloaks of boringness”. And he’s clearly very good at it. And yet, convincing you to read Bouk’s book is not the point of this post. Instead, I wanted to share that Bouk’s book caused me to reconsider a concept that is pretty familiar in the world of data: “data quality.”....reading Democracy’s Data offers an alternative framing: behind any data are stories. When you read data, if you read it deeply and with dignity, you can learn greater truths about the motivations and goals across the data lifecycle....This book taught me, therefore, to remove the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” from my vocabulary when talking about data. Instead, when confronted with the inevitable “data quality” issues that affect any organization, I will try and approach the discussion with greater curiosity about the question: “what is this organization, if this is its data?”