The 25th Anniversary of the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER Project

Rebecca Maxwell


It is something that many of us take for granted every day. If we need to find directions to an unfamiliar place, all we need to do is pull out our smartphone or tablet and get maps of that place instantly. But these tools have not always been available, and the U.S. Census Bureau is celebrating the technology that made it possible twenty five years ago. The Bureau’s TIGER project not only helped to grow the entire GIS industry but spawned the many mapping products we enjoy every day.

The initial purpose behind the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) database was to modernize the Census Bureau’s headcount every ten years by providing the first digital nationwide map of roads, water, and boundaries. Before TIGER, cartographers and geographers created paper maps for the Census Bureau to carry out its work. Features were added manually but these maps quickly became outdated.

TIGER was the U.S. Census Bureau’s solution for mapping the country plus Puerto Rico, and the development and completion of the project took almost 10 years. In order to produce TIGER, the Census Bureau partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which crafted specialized topographic maps. Integrated maps of rivers and roadways were combined with the assistance of new scanning technology. Geographers also had to manually digitize printed maps of individual roads, rivers, railroads, and boundaries.

TIGER census mascot.


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The result was TIGER, a tool that revolutionized mapping and still serves as an important source of GIS data. TIGER/Line Shapefiles are available for free download, and state and local governments often use geographical data from the project to create its own geographical information systems. TIGER is also being employed by the USGS as the basis for the National Map Viewer and U.S. Topo map projects beginning in 2015. The National Map has many functions including emergency response, scientific analysis, and recreation, and TIGER forms the authoritative source of accurate, high-quality geospatial data for it.

Besides TIGER, the U.S. Census Bureau continues to innovate with regards to technology. It was the first government agency to have a public website. It also has created several interactive maps and Web-based mapping services that are available online and on mobile devices. Looking ahead, the Census Bureau, along with the USGS, wants to give high-quality geographic information back to the community, and in regards to TIGER, the Bureau already provides an online mapping application with several file types available to download.

TIGER is constantly being updated. The U.S. Census Bureau improves it every year, and the 2020 census will bring new advancements. Moreover, the Census Bureau plans to continue to contribute to geographic information systems by working with both private and public spheres, supporting research that improves geographical products, and sponsoring GIS conferences.


Census Bureau Celebrates 25th Anniversary of Technology That Propelled GIS, Digital and Online Mapping into the 21st Century – Press Release, November 19, 2014.

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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on