The way to get a recession in Edmonton

John Rose, Chief Economist at the City of Edmonton, started his presentation at the Edmonton Real Estate Forum earlier this month with a bit of humor. “There are two kinds of forecasts,” he told the packed room. “Lucky and wrong!” He finished it on a much more serious note, saying “the way to get a recession in Edmonton is to have the provincial government make cuts.”

Edmonton Real Estate Forum

The general message from Rose was that because Edmonton’s economy is more diversified than Calgary’s or the rest of Alberta, we have handled the downturn better than those locations. “Lethbridge might be the only other jurisdiction that is less reliant on energy than Edmonton,” he said. But, there are reasons to be less optimistic about future growth.

Our unemployment rate went up during the economic downturn “primarily because our labour force grew faster than we could generate jobs,” Rose said, pointing to the increase in migration from other regions that fared worse. It has since gone down to 6.6% but that’s not necessarily a good thing. “The unemployment rate in Edmonton has been going down for exactly the wrong reason,” Rose said. Over 11,000 people have left the labour force in the last 12 months. “Nearly all the job gains we saw in 2017 have been eliminated in the first quarter” of 2018, Rose said. “Education, manufacturing, health care, and professional services have all gained jobs,” he said, while “trade, retail, public administration, transportation, and warehousing have all lost jobs” in the Edmonton area.

public sector employment

As the above chart shows, Edmonton’s public sector workers, which includes those in government, health, and education, make up about 25% of our workforce. The data hasn’t been updated yet for more recent years, but based on data from the 2016 census as well as the provincial Labour Force Statistics report for April 2018, I believe the trend holds.

You can see that the public sector makes up a larger part of Edmonton’s workforce compared with Calgary or the rest of the province. Which means that cuts to public administration, health care, or education hit Edmonton harder than the rest of the province.

So what’s a likely reason the government would need to make cuts? Though Edmonton may be diversifying away from oil, Alberta as a whole is still dependent.

Rose spoke for a while about the price of oil, and it’s impact on the province. “While we have seen North American and Global oil prices accelerate,” he said, “it is only recently that we have seen any benefit from that in Alberta.” He explained the difference between the Brent (the global benchmark price), WTI (the North American benchmark price), and WCS (the Alberta benchmark price), and noted the price discount we’re experiencing “due to export capacity constraints.”


“We are now producing more oil than we can move due to limited capacity,” he said, “which is why the pipelines are so important.” Rose said he was shocked at the speed with which energy companies began to cut back due to the decline in oil prices a few years ago, in contrast with Ontario where he spent most of his career. There he said the economy is “much more like an ocean liner, it’s slow to turn.”


“Oil production in North America is at record levels,” Rose said, “and given our inability to move product out of Alberta, there’s a real risk of oil prices continuing to decline, which would put the provincial government in an even worse position.” That could force it to look to cut costs, which could have a very negative impact on Edmonton’s economy.

Provided that doesn’t happen, Rose expects Edmonton’s economy to do quite well. He expects the unemployment rate to continue to drift downward over the year. “Population growth will continue but at a slower rate,” he said. Vacancy rates at about 7% have driven rental rates down, and thanks to a potential overbuild of single family homes in 2015, “there might be too much inventory”, helping to keep prices in check. “Low inflation will boost real incomes for Edmonton residents as average weekly wages are rising again,” he said.

Rose forecasts that Edmonton and the region “will grow more rapidly than Alberta and Canada” through 2023. Let’s hope he’s lucky, not wrong.

The two oil-related charts above come from Alberta Energy. Canada is the fourth largest producer and third largest exporter of oil in the world, with the oil sands accounting for 62% of Canada’s oil production, according to Natural Resources Canada. There’s more on Alberta’s energy industry at the National Energy Board.

Recap: #MeetInTheMiddle

Early in the new year I received an email invitation to take part in the inaugural Meet In the Middle event, scheduled to take place near Olds, Alberta on Agriculture Day in Canada (February 16). Along with the promise of a five course meal and bus transportation from Edmonton or Calgary, this was the pitch:

“We’re bringing together 150 of the up-and-comings, the established, the industry leaders, the fifth generations and the never-set-foot-on-a-farm to talk about food over a five course meal. Each course is prepared by a different local chef and features food grown in Alberta, paired with a craft beverage from a local brewery or distillery. What better way to celebrate Canada’s Agriculture Day than bringing consumers, producers and industry leaders together – all at the same table!”

The event was organized by A Seat at Our Table, an initiative launched by ATB Financial with partners the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, Tourism Calgary, Edmonton Tourism, and the Alberta Motor Association. I decided to accept the invite, and found myself on a bus to the Willow Lane Barn that afternoon with a dozen or so other Edmontonians.


I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one uncertain about how the evening would unfold. The organizers had sent an online survey in advance of the event (the results of which were to be shared with the event partners and provincial crop and livestock organizations) but few details about what to expect. It’s too bad I hadn’t discovered this article before the event! Evidently we were all to be millenials.

We were greeted with Village Brewery’s Blonde ale. Nothing like a little beer to get the conversation going! At some point an announcement was made that a coffee roasting demo was going to take place before dinner. I think Calgary Heritage Roasting Co‘s story is pretty interesting, but I was not expecting that. You get 150 Albertans together, on an Albertan farm, and you show them…coffee? Odd. I skipped the demo and snuck inside to check out the barn.


As you can see, Willow Lane Barn is a beautiful venue. Despite the fact that it is on a real farm, the barn building we were in was expressly built for events (especially weddings). Very Instagram-friendly. The organizers and kitchen staff were very busy preparing hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks.


The namecards at each place setting were a nice touch and I was happy to see we were seated with people from all over the province. Throughout the dinner some people played musical chairs, a somewhat successful attempt to facilitate networking.


The food was delicious, though somewhat mysterious. There were no menu cards at the table, and while the emcee (Global Calgary’s Amber Schinkel) did speak to the chefs throughout the evening, it was more about their stories than the dishes. I realized part way through that each course flashed up on the screen momentarily, but I think this aspect of the dinner could certainly have been improved. I managed to convince one of the volunteers to send me a PDF of the menu.


I was happy to know only a handful of people in attendance, and I really did have some great conversations over dinner and on the bus ride down and back. I met a pulse farmer, an electrician, a brewer, a physician, a maker of skin care products, a fruit rescuer, a fashion designer, and a rancher, to name just a few. It was a really diverse mix of Albertans.

Willow Lane Barn

I couldn’t resist sneaking outside once or twice during the dinner to take in the sunset. It makes sense that you’d want to hold an event like Meet in the Middle on a farm, but it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of it while we were there.


The chefs for the evening included: Samath Rajapaksa from Rajapaksa Catering, Marie Willier from WinSport Canada, Jesse Woodland from Chartier, Rieley Kay from Cilanto and Chive, and Danielle Job from The Pink Chef. Great stuff from all!


Most people seemed to have a good time, but the evening was just too rushed to get much beyond introductions. As soon as the dessert course was served we were being reminded to get on the bus! We left Edmonton at 2:30pm and got back at 9:30pm, but the actual dinner was basically 5-7:30pm. Especially for the folks who travelled from even farther in the province, it’s hard to see how that was a good use of time.

I understand the intent of the event was to get a mix of young Albertans together over dinner and to encourage conversations that might not otherwise take place. The food and drinks were fantastic, the conversations were great, and overall I had a good time. It was certainly a great idea to get everyone together from across the province around a single dinner table, but I think the event could have had a much bigger impact with fewer attendees and less travel. I’d certainly be open to attending future events organized by A Seat at Our Table, but would hope for a more intimate, close-to-home affair.

Thanks for the opportunity to attend!

The last 25 years of wildfires in Alberta

Like all of you I have been watching the images and stories coming in from Fort McMurray and elsewhere in the province with horror and fascination. Horror because of the incredible devastation caused by the wildfires and fascination because of the incredible response of Edmontonians and Albertans to help all those affected.

The wildfire that is wreaking havoc in Fort McMurray grew very rapidly and is approaching 200,000 hectares in size. It has been nicknamed The Beast by officials. Wildfires are not a rare thing in Alberta of course, we have our fair share every year. I found myself wondering how this year compared to previous years and how this fire compared in size. I was pleasantly surprised to find all of the data readily accessible in the federal and provincial open data catalogues.

Here’s a look at the number of fires and the number of hectares burned in Alberta from 1990 through most of 2015:

alberta wildfire stats

A large number of fires doesn’t always mean more area burned – some fires are just more destructive than others, weather conditions play a role, etc. The worst year in the last 25 years in terms of area burned was 2011 when more than 806,000 hectares burned. One fire that year, the Richardson Fire, was nearly 600,000 hectares in size, the second largest in Alberta history (after the 1950 Chinchaga fire).

The average size of a wildfire in Alberta from 1990 to 2014 was about 120 hectares. There have been a few years with fires over 100,000 hectares in size, but the largest is about 70,000 hectares on average. Here’s the largest fire size by year (for 1990-2014):

1990 11,810
1991 1,559
1992 475
1993 7,820
1994 13,138
1995 132,679
1996 452
1997 2,800
1998 163,138
1999 10,349
2000 2,147
2001 104,534
2002 238,867
2003 29,936
2004 107,829
2005 43,000
2006 18,204
2007 63,000
2008 11,600
2009 11,506
2010 33,075
2011 577,647
2012 134,603
2013 8,819
2014 4,173

Another thing I was curious about was the cause of these wildfires. The data shows that for the 25,000+ wildfires that burned during the 1996-2014 period, lightning causes about 43% of them and residential or recreational activities cause about 38%.

alberta wildfire causes

This year isn’t the first time Fort McMurray has been significantly affected by wildfires, though there’s no question the damage this year is unmatched. A large fire in 2002 caused a number of evacuations of communities near Fort McMurray and threatened Highway 63 before it was eventually contained. The highway was shut down in 1995 when a large fire caused more than 500 people to flee their homes.

Alberta Wildfire Data

If you’d like to dig into the data yourself, here are the relevant datasets:


For the latest updates on the current wildfire situation, here are the official links:

Also note that a province-wide fire ban is in place. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so at the Red Cross online.

Learning about pulses for #3SkillsYEG

Over the last month, I have been learning about pulses and how to cook with them as part of the #3SkillsYEG challenge. Cooking with pulses seemed like a great topic for me given the suggested theme for February was “Personal Growth & Wellbeing” and that 2016 is the International Year of Pulses.


Learning about pulses

It just so happened that the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professionals (CAFP) and the Alberta Pulse Growers (APG) hosted a dinner early in the month called Everything is PULSEible. I was fortunate enough to attend with Sharon, who had been invited to blog about the dinner. It was a great way to both taste and learn more about pulses, though I suppose I didn’t realize just how familiar with them I already was. Here’s an excerpt from Sharon’s post:

“After reading Mark Bittman’s Food Matters more than five years ago (his mission was to encourage more conscious consumption of non-meat proteins), I was inspired to start including more beans and lentils in our diet. In 2011, Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan’s cookbook, Spilling the Beans, was released, becoming one of our go-to guides for meal inspirations. Now, pulses have just become a part of our regular rotation, both as a meat alternative but also to enhance soups, salads and mains, stretching the meal all while adding nutrients. At this point, our pantry and freezer would feel bare without having some variety of pulses on hand.”

She’s not kidding! Our meals often have beans and I guess I just didn’t think of them as pulses. So what exactly is a pulse? From

“Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. Pulses grow in pods and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognizes 11 types of pulses: dry beans, dry broad beans, dry peas, chickpeas, cow peas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, lupins and pulses nes (not elsewhere specified – minor pulses that don’t fall into one of the other categories).”

Canada is one of the leading producers of pulses in the world. In 2011, Canada produced over a third of the world’s lentils and had the largest amount of dry pea production in tonnes. Saskatchewan is the largest pulse producing area in Canada with about 80% of the market, followed by Alberta at 20%, according to Statistics Canada. There are more than 2,300 farms growing pulses here in Alberta, which accounts for about 10% of the province’s crop acres. There’s good reason that the prairies are so good at producing pulses:

“The Canadian prairie soil and climate conditions, research for developing new varieties that resist lodging and disease or have a shorter growing season, agronomic and economic benefits when planted in rotation with other field crops and the growth of processing facilities all contributed.”

Unfortunately it’s not as easy as you might think to locate pulses grown here in Alberta because the packages most often end up with a “product of Canada” label. But as Sharon noted, “Alberta grows a variety of pulses: primarily peas (green, yellow, marrowfat), but also beans (great northern, black, cranberry, pink, small red), lentils (red, green) and chickpeas.”

Cooking with pulses

Pulses are very versatile ingredients and offer some excellent nutritional benefits. Pulses are gluten-free and vegetarian, low in fat and high in protein, and they’re a great source of folate and high in fibre. They’re also relatively cheap, especially when compared with meat. But despite all of those benefits, we don’t eat very many pulses. “A small amount is used by Canadian consumers and has increased over time, but is still relatively low compared to countries where pulses are a dietary staple,” wrote Statistics Canada. Many organizations are working to change that, including the Global Pulse Confederation and of course Alberta Pulse Growers here at home. One of the ways they’re doing that is by developing recipes that show just how easy it is to prepare dishes with pulses.

CAFP Alberta Pulse Dinner

The most surprising dish to me at the Everything is PULSEible dinner was the dessert – Lentil Fudge Pie. “This fudge pie is so delicious, you’ll never guess there’s lentils in it!” They were right. It was very tasty and had I not been told, I’d have never guessed that it contained a red lentil purée. I’m not much of a baker, but I’d be willing to give this a shot.

For a variety of reasons, I ended up doing a lot of the cooking in February. I did my best to use plenty of pulses and I’m happy to report it wasn’t hard! I made dishes in which the recipe called for pulses, like Mushroom Lentil Bourguignon (from Spilling the Beans). I also made some dishes that I simply added pulses to, like Carrot, Spinach and Rice Stew which I added chickpeas to. One of the more interesting dishes I made again tonight so I could take some photos – Curried Lentil Soup.

Curried Lentil Soup

The soup calls for both French green lentils (or dupuy lentils) and chickpeas (garbanzo beans). The lentils are easy to work with – simply rinse them and then add to the pot. I used stock instead of water, and they cooked nicely in about 30 minutes.

Chickpea Butter

The chickpeas take a bit more work as you need to purée them into a butter. I added a can of chickpeas to the food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil and before long I had a nice buttery spread. The last step is to add the chickpea butter to the simmer soup and combine, which gives it a beautiful, rich consistency.

Curried Lentil Soup

The soup is one of Sharon’s favorites, and I have to admit I’m quite fond of it myself. Easy to make, extremely tasty, and pretty healthy too!

Working as Sharon’s sous chef in the past, I don’t think I appreciated just how easy it is to add pulses to a dish. I have a better appreciation for them now, and am happy that our pantry is always stocked with beans and lentils!

Next steps with pulses

To help celebrate the International Year of Pulses, Pulse Canada has teamed up with the American Pulse Association to promote the Pulse Pledge:

“Commit to eating pulses once a week for 10 weeks and join a global food movement! Eating dry peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas helps reduce your carbon footprint – and it’s great for your health. Every 1/2 cup of cooked pulses delivers 9 grams of protein. Get rewarded for eating these miraculous superfoods.”

Pulses once a week? Piece of lentil cake!

I encourage you to give pulses a chance. And as a Learning Champion, I definitely encourage you to check out #3SkillsYEG! The theme for March is Creativity and Expression, and I have decided I will learn how to use my macro camera lens. That’s what I used to take the lentil and soup photos above! You can pick any skill you like, of course, the theme is just to get you going. Be sure to share your learning journey and enter the #3SkillsYEG contest.

I wish you tasty pulses and happy learning!

Uber suspends service, TappCar prepares to launch, Alberta seeks transit strategy input

Here’s the latest entry in my Edmonton Etcetera series, in which I share some thoughts on a few topical items in one post. Less than I’d write in a full post on each, but more than I’d include in Edmonton Notes. Have feedback? Let me know!

Uber suspends service in Edmonton

Today the City’s new Vehicle for Hire Bylaw came into effect. It should have been a great day for Uber and its supporters, but unfortunately the company was forced to suspend operations due to being unable to obtain sufficient insurance to meet Provincial regulations. The Province announced its plan for what it calls “ride-for-hire services” yesterday. There are three key areas in which the Province is taking action:

  • “Insurance: by July 1, an interim insurance product that will provide adequate coverage to Uber drivers and their passengers will be in place. The interim insurance framework has been approved by the Superintendent of Insurance.”
  • “Licensing: all ride-for-hire drivers, including Uber, will continue to require Class 4 Driver Licences or better.”
  • “Police Checks: regulations will be amended to require all ride-for-hire drivers to have a police information check conducted by police.”

It’s the July 1 date for insurance that is the big problem. Brian Mason, Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation, tweeted that Uber “has known all along that insurance wouldn’t be ready til summer.” But Uber said it only learned of the timeline yesterday and apparently neither did City Council.

Uber did say that it would continue operating in surrounding communities like St. Albert where there is no approved regulation, which apparently caught Brian Mason by surprise. “I had not been aware that Uber was going to try and deliberately operate against the law,” he told CBC Edmonton. “That concerns me a great deal and we’ll be having some conversations with our officials.” Umm…where exactly has he been for the last year?

TappCar and other PTPs prepare to launch

According to the City, five regional (Metro Airport, Anytime Taxi, Cowboy Taxi, Dollar Cab and a Private Individual) and one commercial (Tapp Car) Private Transportation Providers (PTP) have been granted licenses under the new bylaw. Not much is known yet about the regional PTPs, but TappCar does look rather interesting and has been featured in the media in recent days.

Image courtesy of TappCar

TappCar is a local company that promises “a new standard of service…that is convenient, reliable and safe.” They having been working to sign up drivers for their launch.

“TappCar offers an industry-leading mobile app, in addition to phone and web booking. Vehicles are guaranteed to be of comfortable size and quality. Drivers are properly insured and professionally licensed, and each vehicle has a two way camera installed, ensuring every ride is safe.”

You’ll be able to book a car using their app, website, or by calling the dispatch. TappCar is planning to launch mid-March if all goes well.

Provincial Transit Strategy

Today the Province announced it is looking for input on a new transit strategy for Alberta:

“There will be two streams of engagement – urban and rural – and an online public survey, all of which will inform the development of an overall provincial transit strategy and criteria for future funding for municipal transit initiatives and rural bus service.”

For the purposes of the strategy, urban communities are defined as having more than 10,000 residents with rural communities having fewer than 10,000. Clearly there’s a difference between the transit needs of Wetaskiwin with 13,000 people and Edmonton with more than 870,000, however.

Both Calgary and Edmonton have made it very clear that investing in public transit is a key priority. The big cities face unique transportation challenges, and require financial support from the Province to deal with them. Having said that, there are some common trends happening across Alberta, like the fact that young people are increasingly choosing other methods of transportation besides driving.

“In 2014, 67.2 per cent of Albertans age 18 to 24 held any class of Alberta drivers’ licence, down from 70.9 per cent in 2005.”

You can provide input on the strategy here until April 29, 2016.

Edmonton is in the middle of revamping its own Transit Strategy, a process that is expected to wrap up in the middle of 2017. Initial feedback was that Edmontonians want a fast, frequent, and reliable transit network that connects them to major destinations like work, school, and shopping, and that they place a high value on having a safe & secure, easy to use system.

Recap: Jasper in January 2016

A few weeks ago I spent a couple of days in Jasper with Sharon. We were invited by Tourism Jasper to experience Jasper in January, the 27th annual festival that aims to showcase everything Jasper has to offer. Guests are encouraged to “stave off the urge to hibernate” and to “embrace winter”. The weekend getaway came at the perfect time for us, as we needed a couple of days to unwind.

Mack & Sharon

Tourism Jasper put us up in the Crimson Hotel, a part of the Mountain Park Lodges family, and covered our transportation and event tickets for the culinary events we visited during our stay. They also arranged for our travel to Jasper, via the SunDog Tour shuttle that regularly travels between Edmonton and Jasper, with stops at Edson and Hinton along the way. We simply took ETS to West Edmonton Mall where we met the shuttle outside the Fantasyland Hotel (their other local stop is the Edmonton International Airport). The only downside of taking the shuttle is that we were on their schedule of course, so we didn’t arrive in Jasper until nearly 8pm.

Wayne & Mack
Had to take a pic with Wayne Gretzky!

Our weekend was themed “appetites”, sandwiched between the “adventure” and “arts” weekends. First on the agenda was the Wine in Winter Welcome Reception. After checking into the hotel, we made the short walk over to the Chateau Jasper and found the event well underway. The reception featured wines from around the world, plus a small selection of cheeses and appetizers. The food was not very memorable, but we had fun with Linda & Mike trying to figure out who was giving the largest pours of wine!

Wicked Cup
My breakfast at Wicked Cup

Our first stop in the morning was at Wicked Cup. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and our coffee and breakfast was delicious. I think most people in our group were surprised at the portion sizes!

Mike, Linda, Sharon
Mike, Linda, and Sharon getting ready for snowshoeing

After breakfast a shuttle took us out to Marmot Meadows where we had the opportunity to do some snowshowing! The area features 9km of cross country ski trails and a new winterized warming shelter. It’s also part of the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve, the second largest dark sky preserve in the world.

Sharon snowshoeing

We had fun snowshowing, especially as we got to use the new, modern, aluminum style snowshoes!

Linda & Sharon
Linda and Sharon racing

We walked through some of the grounds as a group, then had some free time to explore on our own. Linda and Sharon used the opportunity to race! It was close, but I think Sharon won, mainly because Linda stumbled and fell!

Jasper Brewing Co
Behind-the-scenes at the Jasper Brewing Company

For lunch the shuttle took the group to the Jasper Brewing Company. It opened in 2005 and was Canada’s first National Park brewery. They brought us all a ton of appetizers, and I ordered the beer sampler to try their six brews. It sounds like their Jasper the Bear Ale is the most popular, but I preferred the Liftline Cream Ale. After lunch, we got a quick tour of the (surprisingly small) brewery downstairs, where we learned that they don’t do anything to the water except remove the chlorine added to it. Makes sense considering they have natural mountain water from the Rockies!

Jasper in January
Learning about backcountry cooking

After lunch the shuttle took us back out to Marmot Meadows where we were slated to learn about backcountry cooking. We had the opportunity to sample the stew and look at some of the backpacking cooking gear. We didn’t end up spending very long though, so that meant we had a couple of free hours to explore the town.

Linda taking an #elkie

Sharon and I walked around and did a bit of shopping, then we met up with Linda and Mike for a beer. It was nice to just relax for a bit! On the way back to the hotel we encountered a group of elk near the train tracks, and Linda couldn’t resist taking an “elkie”. Eventually a train went by and the elk were completely unphased, they must be used to it.

Jasper in January
Dinner at the JPL

That evening we took a shuttle out to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge for dinner. We were supposed to be having an “Orso Italian” dinner, but for whatever reason it was cancelled. They still put together an interesting menu for our media group though! Unfortunately the meal was rather inconsistent. My lobster pasta dish was great, with enough liquid and flavor, but others found theirs dry and a bit bland. Similarly the entrees were a mixed bag – it sounds like the ravioli prima vera was the best of the bunch.

After getting back to the hotel, Mike and I decided to head down to the Atha-B at the Athabasca Hotel where Tupelo Honey was playing. It made for a late night, but we had fun!

Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls

Had we gone home on the same bus that took us to Jasper, Sharon and I would have left bright and early Sunday morning. But lucky for us, Phil and Robyn offered to let us catch a ride back with them. That meant we had a bit more time to explore Jasper! We started at Athabasca Falls, beautifully covered in snow and ice. It was a little tricky to find, but I’m so glad we did. Athabasca Falls “is not the highest or the widest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies but it is the most powerful.”

Pyramid Lake
Possibly the most Canadian scene ever

After the falls, we made our way to Pyramid Lake. Ice skating, hockey, curling, skiing, sleigh rides – it was a winter wonderland!

Sharon curling at Pyramid Lake

We had lunch inside the lodge, then took the 40 minute sleigh ride along the shore. We also stopped to do a bit of curling on the lake! It was a very picturesque place to spend our final hours in Jasper. Thanks to Phil & Robyn for letting us tag along!

Jasper in January
A real sleigh ride at Pyramid Lake

Here are a few clips from our trip:

Thanks to Tourism Jasper for a great weekend! You can see more of my photos from the weekend here. Also be sure to check out Linda’s recap here.

Highlights from the 2015 Grand Taste Tour

Last weekend I accompanied Sharon on the 2015 Grand Taste Tour, “an interactive educational experience” hosted by Taste Alberta and the 124 Grand Market. As Sharon is a Gastropost adviser, we were fortunate to attend as guests of Taste Alberta. I know she’ll be posting a more complete write-up soon, but for now I wanted to share some highlights.

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The Taste Alberta crew, photo by Linda

There were two variants to the tour: the bee tour which stopped at Wolf Willow Honey and the dairy tour which visited Breveliet Dairy. Both tours also got to see Tofield Meat Packers and Irvings Farm Fresh. As we had toured Bles Wold Dairy in the past, we decided to go with the bee tour.

It was neat to see the bees and hives and to taste the different variants of honey but overall I was a bit underwhelmed. I would have appreciated some more information and guidance during the tasting, for one thing. That said, Doug Chalmers was an encyclopedia of information and it was great learning from him how the bees do their thing! You can buy Wolf Willow Honey at Duchess Provisions.

Wolf Willow Honey
Sharon tasting the honey

Wolf Willow Honey

Wolf Willow Honey
Doug Chalmers teaching us about bees

Our next stop was Tofield Packers. It’s a relatively small facility but is the one that Irvings Farm Fresh uses. I definitely enjoyed the opportunity to see the processing part of the process. We walked through and saw where the animals are led in, one-by-one, to the kill floor. Next was the aging rooms where the carcasses were hanging, followed by the freezers and the smoker.

Tofield Meat Packers
Tofield Packers

Tofield Meat Packers
Cattle and pigs

Tofield Meat Packers
It was about -25 C in this room!

Sharon and I have been buying Irvings Farm Fresh products for years now and have always wanted to visit the farm. When the Grand Taste Tour came up it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do so! The berkshire pigs looked just as happy as we imagined they would, with lots of space and mud to enjoy.

Irvings Farm Fresh
Berkshire pigs

Irvings Farm Fresh
Happy pigs in the mud

Irvings Farm Fresh
Alan and Sharon

In between touring the farm and lunch we had a butchery demo from Elyse Chatterton. She’s incredibly engaging and did a masterful job of showing us a variety of pork cuts in just a few minutes, even explaining the difference in how things are done in England and here in Canada.

Irvings Farm Fresh
Elyse showing us how it’s done

Irvings Farm Fresh
She had a very captive audience

The “lunch” at the end of the day was unreal. Prepared by Daniel Costa and his Corso 32/Bar Bricco team, it was more like a full dinner complete with eight dishes! A meal like that would have easily cost as much as the ticket to attend the entire tour, so it absolutely made the Grand Taste Tour feel like a good deal.

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The most amazing spring pea & mint with crostini

2015 Grand Taste Tour
We couldn’t get enough of the delicious risotto

2015 Grand Taste Tour
Kirsta with the chefs

It was a great day. Awesome job Kirsta and the rest of the 124 Grand Market team!

2015 Grand Taste Tour
The group that worked so hard to make the day happen

You can check out more photos from the tour here and keep an eye on Sharon’s blog for her write-up!

Maybe next time Elections Alberta can spend $1 million on something useful

Well there’s $1 million down the drain. Voter turnout for the 2015 provincial election here in Alberta ended up being 53.7%, down from 54.4% in 2012. The flashy ad campaign that Elections Alberta ran probably had very little impact on those numbers, if it had any impact at all. I’d wager than anger against the PCs and enchantment with the NDP’s orange crush did more to impact voter turnout than #ChooseYourAlberta did.

choose your alberta

They could have spent that money on things that would have actually, measurably impacted turnout. Like more voting stations. Or better educational resources on how to vote. Or online voting. Or, as I will argue for in this post, on a better website and on open data. Let’s start with the website.

Is a functional, reliable, up-to-date website too much to ask for in 2015?

The Elections Alberta website is an unmitigated disaster. It’s garish, uses tables for layout, and is horribly unfriendly to use on a mobile device. Worse, there’s not just one website, but many. Here are some of the subdomains I’ve come across:

There are probably others that I haven’t even found yet, too. Each of those sites has a different navigation menu even though they share a similar design, which makes them very disorienting. Worse, they change seemingly on a whim. Links are removed or change, redirects are put in place, and there is no revision history.

I suppose you could argue that we don’t have elections very often so it’s not worth putting a lot of money into the website. But I’m not talking about a fancy, complicated, expensive redesign. I’m talking about a simple, responsible, and trustworthy website that is actually useful.

I think being trustworthy is especially important. Elections Alberta is the authority on elections in Alberta – I would expect to be able to go their website to find accurate, reliable information. But it’s hard to trust a site that is constantly in flux, with information appearing for a few days and then disappearing again, or links that look like they were added almost as an afterthought.

For instance, I downloaded a list of candidates in the 2015 election in Excel format a few weeks before election day, as I was building my results dashboard. It was somewhere on the WTV site. Today that page is gone, and the WTV site redirects to results. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I can see that a completely different site used to be there, with the link to the Excel document I had downloaded. Why remove that?

It seems they have removed nearly all of the previous information and functionality now that the election is over. Searching for your candidates has been replaced with finding your MLA. Which kind of makes sense, except that you’re on the Elections Alberta site, not the Legislative Assembly website. I expect to find election-related information at Elections Alberta, thank you very much!

A small fraction of the $1 million ad campaign budget would have gone a long way toward addressing these issues with the Elections Alberta website.

It’s time to get on board the open data bandwagon

I really like building things for elections. Whether it’s a results dashboard, a where-to-vote tool, a sign management system for a campaign, or something else entirely, I enjoy it all. These projects generally need data. Sometimes you crowdsource the data (where did volunteers drop all of the signs) but often you want official data from the election authority. In the case of the provincial election, I wanted to build a site that was useful before and after the election, with a where-to-vote feature, information on all of the candidates, and a results dashboard. I needed some data from Elections Alberta to make it happen. Here’s a rough overview of what I wanted:

  • A list of all parties (ideally with contact info)
  • A list of all candidates (ideally with contact info, their electoral district, etc.)
  • A list of all electoral districts (ideally with returning officers and other info)
  • A list of all polling stations (ideally with addresses and contact info)
  • The geographical boundary data for each electoral district
  • The geographical boundary data for each polling station
  • Results data for the 2015 election
  • Historical results data

Each of those datasets would allow me to build additional features, especially when combined with my own data. All of them are fairly straightforward in my opinion, and should be things that the authority on elections would have. Once I knew which datasets I needed, I set about finding them.

My first stop was the Alberta Open Data Portal: “The portal makes data the provincial government collects on behalf of citizens publicly available in machine readable formats with an open licence.” Like the City of Edmonton’s data catalogue, the Alberta Open Data Portal should be a one-stop shop for open data. But unfortunately, it contains no election-related data. I of course submitted a dataset request, but knew it wouldn’t be actioned in time. I still haven’t heard anything back about it.

I knew at this point that I’d have to hunt each dataset down individually, likely on the Elections Alberta site. And given what I wrote above about the website, I knew that was likely to be problematic.

As mentioned I found the list of candidates in Excel format. I also managed to find the electoral district boundary information and the polling station boundaries here. I ended up scraping nearly everything else, including the list of electoral districts. Just four days before the election, after repeated requests that went unanswered, they added an Excel document of all the polling stations (which you can see here via the Wayback Machine).

I’m pretty happy with the way the results dashboard turned out, but again it was all scraped. Instead if making a results feed available, or any kind of structured data, Elections Alberta only provides a static HTML page (which of course does not validate correctly making scraping even more difficult). Now that the election is over, I see they have added the resultsnew site, which appears to provide an option to download the results in Excel. Too little, too late.

One quick note on historical data. You can get PDFs here, but that’s pretty useless for anything other than manual lookups. I couldn’t find anything else. The only reason my results dashboard is able to show results data from 2012 is that I had saved copies of the static HTML results files that year.

This situation is untenable. Scraping data, hunting around a constantly changing website, and pleading for more complete datasets is not my idea of an open and accessible government. Open data is not a new concept, and the Province already has an open data catalogue. All Elections Alberta needs to do is make their data available inside of it.

There’s plenty of time to fix this before the next election!

I know that election time is crunch time, and that the folks at Elections Alberta were probably incredibly stressed out and constantly faced an uphill battle. And I know there are smart, dedicated Albertans who work there. Keila Johnston, Director of IT and Geomatics for Elections Alberta, was particularly helpful. But now the election is over, and I’d really like to see some positive change.

It would be an incredible shame if we got to the next election here in Alberta and found ourselves in the same position: with a website that’s out-of-date and unreliable, and a lack of open data to power new tools and experiences for voters. Elections Alberta has the talent and ability to fix both of those issues, if they prioritize it. And the best part? It shouldn’t cost $1 million to do so.

Alberta goes orange with NDP majority and an Edmonton sweep

Tonight with more than 1.4 million votes cast, Alberta elected an NDP government making Rachel Notley our 17th premier. And to the surprise of many, the polls turned out to be pretty accurate this time. After 44 years in power, the longest unbroken run in government at the provincial or federal level in Canadian history, the PC’s reign has come to an end. They won’t even be the official opposition – although they earned more votes than the Wildrose, they won 11 fewer seats.

Photo by Don Voaklander

The data in this post comes from my results dashboard. All results are unofficial until May 15 when Elections Alberta is expected to announce the final results. And it could very well change, as we have a tie currently in Calgary-Glenmore between the NDP’s Anam Kazim and the PC’s Linda Johnson.

Here’s what the seat breakdown looks like:

abvote2015 seats

The NDP won with 54, Wildrose came second with 21, and the PCs finished third with 10. And here’s what the popular vote looked like:

abvote2015 votes

We’ll have to wait to see what the final numbers are like, but voter turnout is not going to be much different than it was in 2012 at 54%. My guess is it will in the range of 53-57% when the final results are published.

The NDP won support from across the province, picking up 14 seats in Calgary, 19 in Edmonton, and 20 from other parts of Alberta. Here in Edmonton, they won every seat by no fewer than 4400 votes:

edmonton orange

That means some high profile PC members are out, including former mayor Stephen Mandel, current Minister of Human Services Heather Klimchuk, current Speaker Gene Zwozdesky, former deputy preimier Thomas Lukaszuk. Other promising individuals like businessman Chris LaBossiere never made it in. It also means that Liberal Laurie Blakeman is out, our province’s longest serving opposition MLA.

Also interesting is that the number of female MLAs has gone from less than 20 to 27. A step in the right direction.

It’s no surprise that Jim Prentice announced he would step down as leader of the PC party, but it was a shock to hear that he would resign the seat he won in Calgary-Foothills and would leave public life altogether. I can appreciate that being the public eye takes a toll, but his announcement felt incredibly selfish after all his talk of joining politics again because Alberta needed him.

This was a positive election for the Alberta Party. Not only did they roughly double their vote count from 2012, they elected their first MLA in leader Greg Clark who won in Calgary-Elbow.

Albertans have spoken and the winds of change have swept through the province. Rachel Notley and the NDP ran a solid campaign and they now have a clear mandate to govern. Congratulations to all and much respect for everyone who put their name forward as a candidate in this election.

Election Day: Where to Vote and Watch Results

Today is Election Day here in Alberta! It doesn’t take long to vote, so make sure you head down to your polling station today if you haven’t already voted in one of the advance polls. Here’s an overview of how to vote.

Where to Vote

If you need to know where to vote, you can use the tool I built here. It lets you search by address or if you’re on a mobile device in particular, just click “Locate Me” and it’ll figure out where you are. For the most accurate results, simply enter your postal code. Here’s what you’ll see:

where to vote

Once the search completes, it’ll show you the district you’re in, the candidates you can vote for, and your specific polling station (with pins for your location and for the polling station).

I had built this a week or two ago, but yesterday realized that Elections Alberta has improved their own search tool. Nice to see them making some enhancements. The main difference is that my tool has more information about candidates (such as social media links) and also has integrated results information.

Election Results Dashboard

The polls are open today from 9am until 8pm, after which we’ll see results trickle in from around the province. You can watch the results using the dashboard here. It should work well on your desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone!

where to vote

The dashboard shows some overview information, including the number of polls reporting and the estimated voter turnout, and a chart of votes by party. It has six other key features:

  • Party Overview – districts leading/won, total votes, vote % by party
  • Leader Races – votes for each party leader and whether or not they’re winning
  • Closest Races – districts that have the fewest number of votes separating first and second
  • Regional Races – districts leading/won by party by region
  • Most Supported – candidates who have received the most votes
  • Districts – leader, margin, polls, votes, and turnout by district

Most importantly, it’ll update automatically as soon as results come in from Elections Alberta. You don’t need to refresh the page or do anything else – just leave it open and watch the data appear!

I hope you find it useful. I’ve done quite a bit of testing with it, but do let me know if you run into any issues.

Happy Election Day!