If you've ever tried to snap a picture of a moving target, you know how hard it can be to get a clear image.

Capturing a true picture of Somali immigrants in Minnesota can be just as tricky.

The U.S. census doesn't list "Somali" in its breakdown of racial and ethnic groups. Head counts swing widely, depending on who's doing the counting, but everyone agrees that Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the country.

And while there are numbers out there on everything from income to unemployment to school enrollment, numbers on Somali immigration are scattered across many websites.

Not anymore.

This week, the Somali Justice Advocacy Center launched a new database that collects data about Minnesota Somalis from multiple sources and puts all the information in one spot.

Called the Somali Data Center, it lives here: www.somaliadvocacy.net.

The database is the result of a semester's worth of work by some graduate students at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The students, who are graduating this weekend, built the data center as a final project. They mined public data through the Minnesota Department of Education and the most recent American Community Survey.

"A lot of people know anecdotally what the population of Somalis is like," said Mike Osberg, a student who worked on the project. "We tried to provide the numbers that will allow people to ask questions or start discussions about issues that they don't know much about."

That's what Dahir Jibreel hopes for, too.

The head of the 10-year-old advocacy center and a Humphrey fellow, he views the database as a powerful tool for his work pushing elected officials to better understand the situation of local Somalis.

He plans to expand the site with national and international data, and to create a duplicate site in the Somali language.

"We're going to improve year after year," Jibreel said.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488