• A study in shapes: Outlines of pools identified through aerial images were hand-drawn. Shapes were oriented according to their longest axes and overlaid on top of each other. The result gives each neighborhood a sort of swimming pool fingerprint. Left: Beverly Grove, 296 pools; Right: Beverly Hills, 2481 pools
    A study in shapes: Outlines of pools identified through aerial images were hand-drawn. Shapes were oriented according to their longest axes and overlaid on top of each other. The result gives each neighborhood a sort of swimming pool "fingerprint." Left: Beverly Grove, 296 pools; Right: Beverly Hills, 2481 pools

The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools paints a pretty picture of the Los Angeles Basin’s turquoise-dotted landscape, but it’s nothing you’d want to use to help make a business decision.

Joseph Lee and Benedikt Gross intended to pinpoint every single pool in Los Angeles by using modern mapping methods and mining public records. The end result is an artfully packaged compendium of more than 43,000 shimmering oases.

While this isn’t a complete record by far — for instance, it entirely ignores the San Fernando Valley — the project demonstrates how anyone can peek into backyards and pry into private lives. Within the self-published 74-volume, 6,000-page atlas is a staggering amount of data. Accompanying each bird’s-eye view of a pool is its latitude and longitude, the approximate land value, date when the house was built, and — get this — the pool’s evaporation rate.

Shapes were of particular interest to the authors. Outlines of each pool, which were hand-drawn by an overseas labor force, were overlaid on top of each other in an attempt to find common pool types in each area.

“We thought it would be a nice sort of summary where you could see if there was a lot of divergence within the neighborhood, or if there was a convergence of shapes,” said Lee, a 23-year-old geography major from San Francisco. He’s now a graduate student at the University of British Columbia.

The trends they detected are about what you’d expect: Shapes vary wildly in more well-heeled areas where folks splurge on custom pools, whereas they tend to be more uniform in middle-class communities.

As Lee tells it, the project “started out as two guys who just wanted to do a little experiment.” He was a research assistant at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he met Gross, a German graphic designer, visiting from London’s Royal College of Art.

Flying in to L.A., Gross marveled at the sheer number of pools gleaming under the Southern California sun. In a conversation with Lee, he posed a question: “Just how many pools are there?”

Curiosity set it in motion and soon the duo were neck deep in data. They began with aerial photos from the National Agricultural Imagery Program. After treating the images to make the pools stand out, they hired a firm in India to process the shots. Then they tapped Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing service, to weed out blue tarps and other items that could be mistaken for man-made bodies of water.

Now for the unusual part: Lee and Benedikt were compelled to incorporate other curious sets of data into the project. Using public information, they identified all the pools with homes housing sex offenders and those who oppose gay marriage. Why? Just to prove they could.

The team didn’t do any kind of statistical analysis with that information, nor did they intend to draw any correlations, Lee said. That’s why this project also serves as something of a social statement on the easy availability of information some would rather be kept private. Yes, it’s creepy, but Lee said it’s also empowering. “You don’t have to be an expert to take control and see things about your environment,” he said.

At the moment the Big Atlas isn’t available for public use. Lee foresees it as a resource for county fire agencies to spot potential water sources for helicopters to draw from.

So, is Vol. II on the horizon? “It’s definitely ongoing,” Lee said.