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ONS shows link between environment, social structures, health

THE OTTAWA NEIGHBOURHOOD Study (ONS), a program created to provide easy access to various statistics and information concerning Ottawa’s 108 neighbourhoods has overhauled its website in order to make it more accessible and interactive.

Elizabeth Kristjansson, a University of Ottawa associate professor of psychology, has been working since 2005 as a co-lead investigator for ONS. Their research is available on the new website launched Sept. 12.

The project’s overall aim is to point out social determinants that can influence development of a city’s neighbourhoods and sectors. Kristjansson is hopeful that the website will be noticed by those who can make positive changes as a result of its data.

Kristjansson, who also works for the U of O’s Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services, co-leads ONS. The team obtains its information from a variety of sources, which include the National Capital Commission, the Census of Canada, and the Parent Resource Centre, among others.

“[Our findings] will help us understand how where we live influences our health and well-being.” she said.

The ONS’s information is very broad, covering information like average birth weight and hospitalization and emergency room use.

“The idea is that environment plays a critical role, and even today we don’t know how much of a role, in the differences in health outcomes across a region like Ottawa,” ONS co-leader, and U of O professor of geography, Michael Sawada said.

Sawada is a professor of geometrics, the scientific analysis of spacial phenomenon.

“Over 95 per cent of all data today has a special component,” he said. “This has been popularized a lot with Google Maps and Google Earth, where people can explore things in space: locations of fast food, etc., and even social spaces like Twitter.”

The idea for ONS came to Kristjansson in 2005 when a colleague showed her a report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that conducts independent research on the social and economic state of Philadelphia. The report went into depth on the conditions facing various Philadelphia neighbourhoods and revealed that numerous poor neighbourhoods lacked basic living essentials.

“They lacked grocery stores, their park spaces were smaller, and they actually had to pay more for a lot of goods and services,” Kristjansson said. “I thought we should do that in Ottawa and see how the neighbourhoods stack up.”

The project grew from there. Kristjansson was able to recruit a number of people from the U of O and from the community. She hopes the new website will draw more people to the project.

“[The old website] was old and clunky; people basically didn’t use it,” Kristjansson said. “It wasn’t interactive, so whenever someone wanted to know about a particular neighbourhood or sector, we had to generate all kinds of maps and charts for them, and we had to do this each time.”

The website boasts a number of features, ranging from general reports for each neighbourhood to detailed statistics about their accessibility.

“People can go in, choose an indicator—say, ‘park space’—and then they can get an interactive map showing which neighbourhoods have the most park space and which ones aren’t doing very well,” Kristjansson said.

Residents of Ottawa can contribute to the project as well. Sawada developed a free mobile app entitled EnvirONS, which can be downloaded at the Google Play store. Anybody with the app can submit information regarding places of interest that they think would be relevant to the project’s findings and fill in any gaps regarding what ONS may have missed in their reports.

—With files from Spencer Van Dyk