July 12, 2018 6:26 pm
Updated: July 12, 2018 7:28 pm

Population growth visualized: Century of sprawl in Edmonton

How has Edmonton changed over the last 100 years? An analytics firm used open data to visually track a century of growth in the city. Emily Mertz has the details.

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If a picture is worth a thousand words then a six-second video that visually displays how Edmonton has grown since 1917 could be worth even more.

Using the city’s Open Data Portal, a team at Darkhorse Analytics compiled housing development numbers for every year over the last century. Then, they layered those graphics into an interactive map that reveals how — and where — Edmonton sees population growth.

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“I was curious about urban sprawl and how it would look if we tried to animate it,” said Eugene Chen, Darkhorse’s chief technology officer.

“I’ve seen different building-age maps before that use different colours to show different decades of buildings being built but the human eye can only distinguish between so many colours at the same time.

“So I figured: what if we use movement to try and showcase this growth?”

Several clear patterns emerged.

“There was growth that happened in certain time frames,” Chen said. “Right after World War Two there was a spike in growth and right around where there was a spike in oil prices, you would see a spike in the number of units being built.”

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Another observation? Edmonton spreads out and has increasingly grown outward.

“Edmonton has space.

“I’ve looked at other cities and how they’ve grown. With San Francisco, there is no space to grow and as a result they’ve had to take different measures to try to allow for growth and the growth in density.

“Edmonton doesn’t have this problem because we can continue growing outside.”

However, that growth pattern can create other challenges, including inefficiencies in delivering public services and infrastructure.

“To deliver services towards the outskirts of the city, more and more and more, it’s going to be more and more inefficient,” Chen said.

“It’s going to take more money, take more time and it’s going to cost taxpayers more money, I think, in the long run.”

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Chen believes there are even social ramifications of urban sprawl.

“There’s something to be said about a city that keeps growing and we’re so much further apart… If we were closer together, I think we’d have more conversations and more community.”

Overall, the reaction to this project has been positive, Chen said. It wasn’t commissioned; it was just something he was interested in tracking. The map wouldn’t have been possible if Edmonton didn’t offer so much data to citizens.

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“The city has been such an innovator in the space of open data.

“There’s also Beta City YEG, which is a civic meetup for people interested in technology… And Darkhorse as well. I wouldn’t be able to create this map without the wonderful colleagues that I have.”

After a few months of collecting the raw data, Chen said it only took about one week to put the map together.

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“Open data as itself is a little bit like raw diamonds.

“It’s kind of ugly, it’s dull. Some people might see the potential in raw diamonds or just data but you need to make that into information people can use, people can understand.

“For that, someone has to go through the process of polishing it, cutting it the right way, highlighting some facet of the diamond to show you something interesting.”

Just like the open data program itself, Chen hopes his population growth map will have future applications.

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“I’ve managed to make this simple enough, I think I can actually replicate this for cities across North America,” he said, adding there have already been requests from other municipalities.

“I hope this brings up further conversations that people will have by looking at the patterns that come up from this map in terms of how sprawl is evolving within Edmonton and how it looks compared to maybe other cities that don’t have as much room to grow.”

To view the complete interactive maps, visit Darkhorse Analytics’ website.

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