Developer turns data into 'useful and magical things'

· The Pulse

After a decade of creating data visualizations for Darkhorse Analytics, Eugene Chen is on to the next chapter of his career, having delivered one more wow-inducing piece of work: This is Edmonton.

The 3D interactive map uses demographic data from the 2016 City of Edmonton census, allowing users to compare 200 of the city's neighbourhoods by age range, household income, languages spoken, methods of transportation to work, employment status, length of residence, marital status, and structure type.

You can see, for example, that 30% of households in Mill Woods Town Centre use public transit to get to work, compared to 13% in Edmonton as a whole. It's also a neighbourhood where 12% of residents reported being widowed, compared with 3% of all Edmontonians. Donsdale and Henderson Estates have the highest proportion of households with income over $250,000, while Virginia Park has the highest proportion of households making less than $30,000.

That's just a tiny sample of what the interactive reveals.

"I expect this to be used by a variety of Edmontonians, especially those looking to move to a different part of the city," Chen said. "I'm also hoping that non-profits can use this to target their services in a more focused fashion to reach more people, and for businesses to be able to use the demographic information to make decisions on where they might want to open a new branch, for example."

This is Edmonton is the capstone of 10 years of projects that Chen has helped bring into the world at Darkhorse. Others include a look at property assessments in Edmonton, Vancouver, and San Francisco; an animated growth map of new buildings since 1917; and the Opportunity Atlas, which used anonymous data following 20 million Americans from childhood to their mid-30s to show which neighbourhoods in the U.S. offer children the best chance to rise out of poverty.

"What motivates me is creating useful and magical things," said Chen, who also serves as president of the Canadian Open Data Society. "It excites me to see when there's a twinkle in people's eyes, and they say, 'Oh wow, this is really cool.'"

Chen is very passionate about his projects and has helped make interesting data accessible to a broader audience, said Daniel Haight, president and co-founder of Darkhorse Analytics.

"He comes at problems, visualization problems, with a very different approach, a very creative approach," he said. "He's able to stand out from the crowd because no one's ever thought of it that way, and that's probably the hallmark of what he's done and what he's meant to the data-viz community."

A smiling Eugene Chen standing outside with Edmonton's skyline behind him

Eugene Chen capped off his career at Darkhorse Analytics with This is Edmonton, an interactive map of Edmonton's neighbourhoods that makes census data more accessible and engaging. (Supplied)

Chen studied electrical engineering at the University of Alberta, and first got into open data at the Apps4Edmonton competition organized by the city in 2010. His submission, called Statistics Edmonton, won second place overall. Joining Darkhorse Analytics two years later gave him the chance to further pursue data visualization.

Edmonton is a leader in open data, he said, which provides a lot of numbers to play with.

"Some of the visualizations I've done are not possible to do in any other city because Edmonton was the one that provided the data in the detail and depth that it had," said Chen, who is also a co-organizer of Beta City YEG, a civic technology meetup group.

Visualizations like This is Edmonton not only make the census results more accessible and engaging, but demonstrate the value of open data itself, he said. So much creativity can emerge from it.

"There are a lot of reasons to release open data," he said. "Even though it might seem like a cost, the benefit to the city is immense, even if it's not necessarily immediately obvious."

Chen said he plans to take the upcoming year to tackle projects he wasn't able to pursue while at the Darkhorse and to "surprise Edmontonians" with what he does next.