Q&A with the Authors
Why is London the information capital?
James: Referring to London as the information capital is a bold claim. We think it is justified for two reasons: London not only generates a huge volume of data, it shares an unprecedented amount with its citizens to use as they wish. These data are known as ‘open data’ and in recent years, the UK government has made their dissemination a national priority. Open data initiatives exist in other cities, not least in Europe and North America, but what gives London an information edge is the belief that data can not only record social change but also instigate it.
Oliver: As an American, I couldn’t believe how much government data was publicly available and how easy it was to access it online. In fact, accessing it was encouraged! For example, take Freedom of Information requests (FOIs). We wanted to know how many items people lose on the Tube each year and how many of those are returned to owners overseas by TfL’s Lost Property Office? So we filed a request on whatdotheyknow.com and in due time, we got our answer. That is bananas! In New York, not only would nobody bother tracking that kind of information, if you did lose something on that subway, I’m not sure you’d even want it back.
How did you get the idea for the book?
James: London has a rich history of maps and mapping. I wanted to create something that channels London’s mapping legacy into a contemporary view of the capital. There are more datasets out there than ever before and our ability to make the most of them using powerful computers has never been better, so it felt like the perfect time to capture the depth and diversity of modern London through its data.
Oliver lives in the US. How do you know each other?
James: I was a PhD student studying the geography of surnames and National Geographic Magazine got in touch to ask if I could supply them with some data for North America. Oliver was one of the designers who produced a brilliant typographic map from it. I have no idea how National Geographic found me, but I am glad they did.
Oliver: Yeah, I worked with James on the surnames map and then about a year later I reached out to him and his colleague, Ollie O’Brien, to make another map for National Geographic about London’s cycle-hire scheme. A distressing number of infographics out there on the web and in print use smoke and mirrors to mask the fact that the data behind the graphics are rubbish. To make great graphics you need great data. Full stop. I know no one better at mining great data than James and Ollie.
Who did what on the book? How did you divide up the work?
James: Every graphic was a collaborative effort but we each played to our strengths. I did the number crunching and plotting of the most data-heavy graphics and worked hard to ensure that we had the best data and accurate labels for London. I also drafted the essays in the book, whilst we split the text for the graphics between us.
Oliver: From the beginning it was important to us that there be something in the book for everyone. Too many books on data and infographics seem to cater only to a tech audience. This frustrates me because the issues we can address with data—health, housing, happiness—apply to everyone. If you want to see incredible visualizations of flight routes and shipping traffic, each with millions of data points, James has got you covered. If you want to see hand-drawn graphics of zoo animals, scenic vistas, and Roman bones found beneath the city, we’ve got those too.
How did you collaborate across an ocean?
James: This book was made possible thanks to Google Hangouts. The physical distance between us was a double-edged sword. Sometimes it took tens of emails and an hour on a hangout to go from an idea to a layout for a spread – something we could do in minutes face to face – but it also meant that the graphics themselves had to work harder. It is much easier to convince someone that a dodgy idea is a good one when they are sat next to you, much harder over an email at 1 a.m. their time.
Oliver: We shared files through Dropbox and ideas through Google. Still, certain things had to be done in person. James came to visit me in Michigan in April and I flew over to London for two weeks in February. It was during that visit that I was able to hike to all 13 protected vistas, research the history of London’s Blue Plaques, draw animals at the zoo, and interview cabbies. As for my writing in the book, it really helped to immerse myself in our book’s five chapters: the expanse of the city, the diversity of its people, the rhythms of daily commuting, the cultural offerings, and the many social and educational initiatives in action.
One of my favorite days was the day that Ben Payne, the co-director of Hoxton’s Ministry of Stories invited me to be a guest judge during a writing workshop called ‘Bottled Emotions’. Eleven- and twelve-year-olds from City Academy Hackney were making hilarious pitches for new hygiene products for monsters like snake-taming spray for Medusa and a lip-balm for shapeshifters. You just can’t have experiences like that over email.
Do you have a favourite graphic or map in the book?
James: I don’t have a particular favourite. I was most excited to receive data about shipping in the Thames. I grew up alongside the estuary in Leigh-on-Sea and learned to sail there, so many of the features such as the enormous ships, Southend Pier and the wreck of the SS Montgomery were familiar to me. It was a real pleasure to include them in the graphic.
Oliver: I’ll leave that for our readers to decide. Like with many wonderful life experiences, years from now I’ll probably think of our graphics in terms of which were most memorable to produce. I’ll never forget hiking to Blackheath Point at dusk with a dying phone battery and no idea where I really was, only to arrive in time for a fiery sunset. Or drawing Westminster from the Serpentine Bridge when the skies suddenly opened up. There is remarkably little shelter in Hyde Park.
Which one required the steepest learning curve?
James: I needed to learn a new piece of computer code or way of manipulating a particular data format for almost every graphic. The steepest learning curve for me was writing the text to introduce the graphics. As an academic I’m used to long prose, acronyms and complex language for papers that generally only use maps or graphs to support the text – here it had to work the other way round with the text supporting the graphic.
Oliver: We had to produce 100 graphics in about nine months. In other words, to make our deadline we needed to research, design, write, and revise one graphic every three days, which, needless to say, is insane. At National Geographic, we would typically take months to produce maps of this detail. James and I needed weeks to produce the first few graphics last fall. By the time spring rolled around, we were in such a groove that we were turning out finished pieces in three days.
A word of caution for anyone attempting a similar project in the future: I thought it was a really cool idea to adapt the coat of arms for every livery company into an iPhone app icon. In retrospect, producing 110 of anything takes a long time. Even if I had been able to draw one new icon per hour (which I wasn’t), that still would’ve been four and a half straight days of work without eating or sleeping.
How do you make one of these graphics? Is there specific software you use or a set process you follow?
James: Most of my data analysis was undertaken in open source software – a statistics programming language called R and a Geographic Information System called QGIS. The visualisations from these were exported as PDF files and them loaded into Adobe Illustrator for refinements before passing to Oliver for his design work.
Oliver: Most of my graphics started out as notebook scribbles first. James will cringe but I actually printed out the data spreadsheets and went through them with a pen and highlighter to find patterns worth visualizing. Where are the groupings? Where are the outliers? If the idea held up on paper, then I moved to the computer. Most of my graphics that weren’t done by hand were made using Excel and Adobe Illustrator. I then used Adobe InDesign to layout the pages of the book. I thought I knew how to use those programs pretty well when I made infographics at National Geographic. After the amount I learned producing London: The Information Capital, I am proud to say I was wrong.
Is this book only for Londoners?
James: We hope it will be exciting to anyone interested in cities, data, graphics and design.
Oliver: I realize I am completely biased, but I’ve spent less than a month in London, and I want to read it! London sets an incredible example for how to integrate a city’s rich history with the future of technology and urban planning.
Will there be a sequel in another city?
James: We very deliberately say London is the information capital as a challenge to other cities to see if they can prove us wrong. We hope we have set the bar pretty high.
Oliver: Possibly, but one of my goals for 2015 is to return to a normal sleep schedule.
What message do you want your readers to take away from the book?
James: We hope that the book works on a number of levels. Each of the hundred or so graphics has its own message about a particular aspect of London life as shown through its data. When combined these graphics offer a compelling argument for the power of data visualisation and the importance of London as the information capital.
Where did you get your inspiration for the variety of topics you cover in the book?
James: Many of the graphics are the direct result of research that I’m working on or the results from friends and colleagues. Whilst working on the book I would keep asking myself ‘if I could map anything on London what would it be?’ and then try and pursue the answer. Often the datasets weren’t collected but many times they were already available or could be found through Freedom of Information requests.
Oliver: James and I read a lot, scoured London’s datastores, and as James said, we talked about what WE thought would be cool to see visualized. The idea for mapping the Tube Challenge came while we were looking at one of Mark Wallinger’s ‘Labyrinth’ artworks in the Russell Square Tube station. Other times we just started with a question. What if we could chart everything lost at Heathrow Airport in a single year? We didn’t know how or where we’d get that data, but we knew how cool it would look if we did. And often that’s all you need to get started.