Q&A: Census Mapper Jens von Bergmann on the Rise of the Citizen Expert

We chat with the man who dares to map the data.

Jens von Bergmann, the recently emerged go-to expert on census and housing data in Vancouver, shares his thoughts on the rise of the citizen expert and the downfall of the city’s housing market.

Q: So, you’ve become one of Vancouver’s experts, in this new era of self-declared citizen experts, on controversial topics like real estate and housing data. The maps you produce from an application you developed get used by media and parents and government agencies. How did that happen, when you’re not affiliated with an institution?

A: I started to get interested in housing issues and teardowns. A friend sent me a census data set from the city. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I made a web map. It sat there for a while until a journalist picked it up to do a story about people reporting less income than they had in shelter costs. Then other people started asking me all kinds of census data questions. I realized what a pain it was to do census data lookups. So I built Census Mapper as a solution, to make that data accessible.

Q:Had you done anything like that before? What’s your background?

A: I grew up mostly in Bonn . I have a PhD from Michigan State in mathematics, but my area is pure math and string theory. For a while, my wife and I were doing the university thing, both teaching, both at different institutions. Then we spent time in Taiwan, where she’s from, when our kid was young. I built an app for daycare centres in Taiwan, where there are lots of government regulations on daycares, so they keep a lot of records. It’s now used by several of them. Most of the money I make from that goes into business development in Taiwan. When my wife got a job offer here (at UBC, as an associate professor in the faculty of dentistry), we decided to come here and I would figure out what to do for work on my own.

Q: What’s the most popular map from your Census Mapper series?

A: My trick-or-treat map. (It uses census data to map the number of children of prime trick-or-treating age in a neighbourhood.) The prime users are parents around Halloween, trying to figure out how much candy to buy. I get 150,000 people in a couple of days. Some cities push traffic through the roof, like Calgary.

Q: It’s a challenge these days to have rational conversations about topics people are emotional about, like the causes of Vancouver’s housing crisis. You’ve tended to contradict some claims about empty condos or foreign investors. How do you deal with the conflict?

A: It’s a weird space to be in, especially because I’m in this space without being a professor. I get hate mail. Partially, my answer to this has been to write a blog post on whatever the issue is, one that contains the entire analysis, data and code, so people can download it. Some of the conversation I see does worry me. One thing that really bothers me is the idea that people apply the term money laundering to anyone who circumvents Chinese capital controls.

Q: Has your unpaid census work led to anything else?

A: People come to me for analysis—companies, institutions, non-profits. When companies that market real estate to China come to me, I just say no. I have this role in media; I don’t want to compromise that. I’m now working on a new project for Natural Resources Canada, looking at earthquake risk and exposure.

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