London as an API: using data to narrate the city

A talk about visualising London in maps and data patterns makes me think about how to select material for city stories.

St Pancras Station, LondonLast week I was at the London travel bookshop Stanfords to listen to geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti discuss their new book ‘London: The Information Capital’, which presents 100 themed maps and data visualisations based on data generated by London and its people. This beautifully produced book is a result of a year’s intensive collaboration. The creators have applied all kinds of interpretive, statistical, cartographic and design filters to reveal London’s hidden patterns from millions of data points. My favourite is the street trees of Southwark – each of my neighbourhood’s trees intricately mapped as a tiny coloured dot.

Some of these data sets are freely accessible on the London Data Store; others the creators retrieved from Freedom of Information requests. What particularly interested me was that they felt that only now are the data tools available, and only London has the level of open data needed, to make such a book possible.

In all its magnitude London has inspired Charles Booth to map its poverty, Phyllis Pearsall to map its A–Z of streets and Harry Beck to map its Underground stations. Now we can see our city as one great API, and ourselves as the data points and data creators.

Londoners as data creators

Of course, everyone is and has always been a data creator, producing limitless information with every moment of existence – from breaths drawn to every flick of an eyelid. What’s different now is how conscious people are of their own data.

You can actively broadcast your experiences – wearable video cameras, whether mounted on your lapel, glasses or cycle helmet, being one of the latest ways to share life data. Or you can self-quantify, tracking the data you produce as a living creature, from how deeply you’ve slept to how far you’ve run to how many calories you’ve eaten. Or you can just feel quietly paranoid, knowing that every time you use a device or the web or simply walk down a street, you’re leaving behind data like sweaty fingerprints.

What’s clear from ‘London: The Information Capital’ is how much data from our lives is being recorded by the city, with its cameras, microphones and sensors like a million eyes, ears and fingers. This collecting of data is often justified on the basis that it can inform and instigate social change. The city promises many answers in its mass of data, but it also overwhelms, and a centralised intelligence is needed to extract patterns and make deductions.

Choose your own adventure

At a recent digital storytelling conference I attended there was a lot of talk of applying digital design thinking to storytelling. Consider your audience as ‘users’ and use tools to understand their data – who they are, what they’re looking for and how they use it. Then create stories to meet their user needs.

In a product or service design setting the user-focussed approach is the ideal approach, but for stories I was concerned about a lack of serendipity. Personally, I don’t want to be stuck in a ‘filter bubble’. Let an author show me a world I don’t know!

Nevertheless, the idea that a story world can adapt itself to the choices that a user makes, as in a computer game, is an exciting prospect – particularly in a real city setting where the data about your location and your movements could reveal new layers of a story. How long before Londoners are running around their city acting out missions in a layered world that only they can see? You are Sherlock Holmes!

Multiplicity in the municipality

But how to narrate the city?

As Henry James records in his ‘Notebooks’, a writer may first despair of London’s ‘horrible numerosity of society’, only to ultimately celebrate the city as ‘the most possible form of life’. Nevertheless, the writer has somehow to break down this multiplicity.

You may start with a list and certainly the 19th-century journalist Blanchard Jerrold revels in cataloguing the city scene in ‘London: A Pilgrimage’, heading down to the busy Thames riverside to observe the:

watermen, porters, touters, fish-salesmen, sailors, draymen, costermongers, all mixed up with the passengers hurrying to and from the boats, stopped by street vendors of all descriptions, importuned by beggars, threading perilous ways between mountainous loads, fish and fruit barrows, cabs and cars…

Jerrold’s very loquacity stands in for the crowded nature of London, but all this detail still leaves me feeling vague about the subject.

'Resting on the Bridge', Gustave Doré
‘Resting on the Bridge’, Gustave Doré

Jerrold did at least have the foresight to hire Gustave Doré to accompany him and provide illustrations. In this author / designer collaboration the Frenchman’s intricate engravings don’t match the journalist’s rhapsodic tone; instead, they are sombre and melancholy, showing London to be a cramped and infernal place of industry and poverty. At one point Jerrold recounts Doré’s sudden suggestion to retrace their steps to a scene of poor women and children upon the stone seats of London Bridge: ‘By night, it appeared to his imagination, the scene would have a mournful grandeur.’

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ the falling of night also helps the narrator to focus. From the window of a London coffee house he catalogues the merchants, clerks, pick-pockets, gamblers, pedlars… until as the city descends into the ‘garish lustre’ of the gas-lamp, he is taken by a decrepit old man with a fiendish countenance who he follows like a willow-the-wisp through the streets of London. For me, what comes across in Poe’s tale is not the character of the old man, whose purpose for wandering the city remains elusive, but the loneliness of the narrator.

For the writer there’s always a tantalising sense that looking hard, making observations and spotting patterns can reveal the secret of a personality. In a city setting, I often think of the writer / detective Daniel Quinn in Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’. Quinn is tailing the mysterious Peter Stillman on his daily walk through New York, and as he plots Stillman’s routes on a map he becomes increasingly convinced that the subject of his surveillance is creating a new letter each day to spell out a secret code. I love this idea of city tracking as a metaphor for an author on the brink of madness. ‘The implication was that human behaviour could be understood, that beneath the infinite facade of gestures, tics, and silences, there was finally a coherence, an order, a source of motivation.’ Naturally, the act of following Stillman leads nowhere for Quinn. No Sherlock Holmes in Manhattan.

The following

As a writer, your starting point is data, usually of a sensory kind. In the words of Flannery O’Connor: ‘The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.’ But data needs a filter: ‘Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be out to work for you.’

You can follow a character, record their route and spot their signposts, but the data created and observed in a physical or virtual space will never reveal their personality – not unless, at some point along the way, you experience what that data means to them. Only then, with what O’Connor called ‘experienced meaning’, can you move from data to narrator.