The Power of Print

Cross-posted from London: The Information Capital’s website
London’s maps are special. They were drawn by pioneers such as Charles Booth, who revealed the full extent of the city’s poverty, Jon Snow, who deployed maps to determine the cause of cholera, and Phyllis Pearsall, who mapped 23,000 streets in her hugely popular ‘A to Z’ guide. But the map Londoners are probably most familiar with belongs to Henry Beck. His 1931 Tube map eschewed geographic accuracy for a more diagrammatical display of the city’s Underground lines. Instantly recognizable the world over, Beck’s map remains one of the most-loved depictions of the capital.
In recent years it has become possible to map London in a myriad of new ways thanks to the millions, if not billions, of data points generated everyday in the capital. Not only are colossal volumes of data being collected from Oyster cards, smartphones and social media, London’s data are also being made publicly available on an unprecedented scale. We have taken full advantage of these exciting developments to create a new book entitled London: The Information Capital.
We have spent the past year collating and visualising a huge range of data to create 100 maps and graphics about the world’s greatest capital city. They cover topics ranging from the police helicopters’ daily activities (above), to London’s Twitter hotspots, to art in the Tate galleries. We benefitted from public data to identify our subjects, and from the power of the latest computers and software to turn them into graphics. Given how high-tech this all sounds, a tablet-friendly e-book or website might seem to be the natural way to present our graphics.
Instead we chose paper and ink. Here’s why…
Firstly, paper maps have tangibility. We wanted to create an object you could sit with, pore over, share with your friends (in person) and then discuss. While digital maps can certainly be explored, they sometimes gain their interactivity at the expense of engagement. There are simple pleasures that a hardback book offers you that digital never will. One of the most exciting moments for us when creating the book was when we were sent a “dummy” copy – these were the pages of the book on the paper we had selected and with the final binding. All the pages were blank but it still felt good to hold and offered the skeleton that we were in the process of fleshing out with the colour of our graphics.
Secondly, print is a pretty incredible technology. You can simply see more at one glance on a printed page than you can on a smartphone screen without all the pinching, tapping and scrolling. To capture the beauty in the detail of London’s shipping lanes (above) or favourite cycling routes may have required some of most technologically-advanced plots ever produced for the capital, but technology is often no substitute for pen and paper. Before we wrote a line of computer code or bent a single Bezier curve, we sketched up and talked through our approaches with the mantra ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’. Paper was therefore as integral to our work as computer processors.
Of course, paper and printing have some limitations, not least because printed maps and graphics are frozen in time: we cannot update them as the city changes. In some cases, that change is too slow to be noticed – for example, The City of London’s street layout has barely changed for centuries – whereas in others – such as house prices – change occurs almost daily. That said, even with the most changeable data, printed visualisations still offer important snapshots for the album of London’s history. We still look back in awe to London’s Victorian pioneers who’s printed data visualisation helped to set London on course to becoming the The Information Capital. If you had walked its streets then, you may have passed Florence Nightingale using her coxcomb plots to lobby for better sanitary conditions in military hospitals or bumped into epidemiologist William Farr plotting data on the city’s latest cholera deaths. Thanks to initiatives by the likes of the British Library and Wellcome Trust their work is still frequently exhibited available to view online.
To see the power of print up close, head over to City Hall, the headquarters of the Greater London Authority (GLA). One of the largest printed maps in London has been pasted to its ground floor (above). Commissioned in time for the 2012 Olympics and produced from aerial photos taken by Ordnance Survey, it shows the expanse of the capital in amazing detail. Instead of panning and zooming, you can walk over to your house or stand on your favourite landmark. Better still, we like to imagine people carrying the book around the capital alongside their Tube map so they can imagine the billions of data points swirling around them unencumbered by the need for WiFi, mobile data or charged batteries.
Purchase London: The Information Capital from Amazon, Waterstones, or Foyles