Tips on FIPS: A Quick Guide to Geographic Place Codes

Geographic place codes are used to facilitate the storage, processing, exchange, and retrieval of geographic information. FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) is a published series of standardized codes used for interchange between government agencies and other technical communities in order to ensure uniform practice and organization. Administered by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), FIPS codes are issued to establish government-mandated industry standards (when no voluntary standard exists) – including systems for security, authorization and encryption processes. As geographers and data analysts we are interested in specific FIPS codes developed to assign ID tags for various geographic entities. These codes identify everything from cities and towns, to congressional districts, to regions and countries. Here at PolicyMap, we maintain most of our datasets at state, county, census tract, and census block group geographies. We would like to kick off a short series about the use and function of FIPS state/county codes, with a brief timeline.

FIPS codes numbered 5-2 and 6-4 were originally published in the 1970s (as previous versions 5-1 and 6-3) and then updated in 1987 and 1990 respectively. FIPS 5-2 issued a 2-digit numeric value for each U.S. state, the District of Columbia, outlying territories and other affiliated areas. This series also includes the 2-letter state abbreviations – introduced previously by the U.S. Postal Service with the development of the 5-digit ZIP code in 1963. FIPS 6-4 issued a 3-digit numeric value identifying counties and equivalent subdivisions. Combined these 5-digits provide a unique state/county identifier. In 2008 these two sets were dropped among other geographic area codes from NIST authority, but still continue to be used by the U.S. Census Bureau. The new replacement standard for the state code (FIPS 5-2) is INCITS 38 – 2009, and for the county code (FIPS 6-4), INCITS 31 – 2009. These INCITS (InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards) codes are standards which operate under the management of American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The Census now uses these updated ANSI codes; however the FIPS acronym still remains in use, though with a slightly altered meaning (Federal Information Processing Series).

Stay tuned for more fun facts and helpful tips on using and understanding FIPS codes!