Saturday, July 22, 2006

Rant: Can't IE & American Factfinder Get Along?

OK, I am sure I am not the only person frustrated by the Census American Factfinder website's use of the automatic download prompt. Ever since Windows XP SP2 was released in August 2004, the enhanced IE security makes it a bit cumbersome, especially for students, to download user-selected detailed tables.

I am sitting here drafting a help guide for students and faculty needing to access Census 2000 datasets, and I need to write about which browser to use? And how to recover your search if you accidentally use IE without the proper settings? It's ridiculous. Absolutely so.

I will do four things below. First, I will describe the problem in a bit more detail. Second, I will point out the two best solutions that I am aware of. (Please, please someone add a comment here if you know of another solution.) Third, I will point out what to do if you accidentally use IE without the proper settings. Fourth, I will tell you how I initially came across this problem.

What is the problem?

I assume most of us working with U.S. demographic data are familiar with American Factfinder. This is the official portal to access most (but not all) available datasets from the 1990 and 2000 decennial Census counts, economic Census, and oodles more goodies.

Now, GIS users predominantly need to access the summary files to extract detailed tables. I am often helping students to access variables for all the 1033 block groups in Tarrant County, TX. After building a query and attempting to download the database compatible results, the browser should immediately prompt users to download the compiled zip file. However, by default Internet Explorer throws its Information Bar at the top of the browser. No problem one would think. Click the Information Bar and select Download File. However, doing so refreshes the entire page, which removes from the query all geographies but the first 10. What?! This is what consistently happens. When users then restart the download (still using IE), only the first 10 geographies from their query are downloaded. I get numerous emails and phone calls from faculty and students who are working outside the library or at home.

Two best solutions

First, use a Mozilla-based browser, such as Firefox, Netscape, or even K-Meleon. Or use Opera. Or Mac users can use Safari. At the time of this writing, I am aware of no browser other than IE that has troubles with Factfinder downloads.

Second, add Factfinder as a trusted site in the IE security settings. This clears the problem right up.

Now, most libraries and labs offer multiple browsers (if not, get on that immediately) so non-IE users need never be aware of this problem. For IE users, Factfinder should be added as a trusted site. So, while in the library or lab, IE users need not be aware of this problem either. But then folks go back to their offices. They go to other labs on campus. They go home. Should they use IE to access Factfinder they will get the Information Bar and be limited to download their first 10 geographies. That's when I get a phone call or an email. (I can't seem to get students or faculty to IM me.)

What to do if you accidentally use IE without proper settings?

If you see the IE Information Bar, do not click it! Once you click the Information Bar to allow the download, all geographies beyond the first 10 are lost. Period. You will need to go back to the Geographies section and reselect your geographies. The good thing is that IE normally will now allow you to directly download the file without the Information Bar popping up because you already gave it permissions.

If you see the Information Bar and realize that you are about to wreck your query, you can do either of the two options listed above. I recommend saving your query as an xql file and loading the query using an alternative browser. Then just remember to avoid IE, especially when using Factfinder. Another option is to immediately go into the IE browser security settings and add Factfinder as a trusted site. This will work immediately as IE does not need to be restarted for changes to take affect.

If you are in a lab or library with only IE and you do not have sufficient permissions to install another browser or to tamper with IE security settings, you are plain out of luck. Sorry.

Why I now use Firefox as my browser

Isn't it always the case that when something breaks it happens in front of a class??

In the Fall 2004 semester, soon after installing SP2 on my laptop, I was invited to give a GIS presentation to an undergraduate advertising class. I was leading them through an exercise similar to the one I discuss here, when that Information Bar popped up in Factfinder. No worries, I tell the class. We click the Information Bar and give permission to download the file. The file downloads. We open the Excel sheet and of course we see just 10 block groups. I tinkered around with IE for a few long, stressful, minutes unsure what had happened. I could not figure out how to resolve it. The students begin to giggle and chatter among themselves as I struggle. As I begin to perspire. My mind is racing. Do I have the students start on another project? I would hate for them to have to immediately break from using Factfinder as it is the main source of official demographics in the U.S. I am trying everything that I can think of and finally I try Netscape Navigator 6, which was on the computer but I doubt it was ever used. It worked. It worked!

I then discovered Firefox and have loved it ever since. For sites that require the IE browser, the IE Tab extension does the trick for me.

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