After the Flood’s visual toolkit for mapping London data
One of the early collaborative projects at Future Cities Catapult—actually roughly the same time as Pixel Track with BERG—was a small, quick, but useful, insightful and powerful bit of information design with After the Flood. (Ed. This work was subsequently developed as a book, ‘Cities Squared’)
I asked them to work with us on a visualisation ‘device’ for data about London, principally the real-time air quality data that we’re getting from our Sensing Cities project, which is a collaboration focused on low-cost sensors with Intel ICRI, Royal Parks, Enfield London Borough Council, Lend Lease and Southwark Council, amongst others.
London remains an awkward beast to map and describe information about, even spawning a book devoted to the various maps, models and visualisations about this most complex of cities. There’s also a Ken Garland book about its most famous map, Harry Beck’s for London Underground, which remains the outstanding bit of information design about London. (I can’t remember my Lanchester about whether I should call it ‘underground’ or ‘tube’ in this context.)
Understanding that approach implicitly, After the Flood rapidly developed a productive way forward, similarly based on an exploration of how to bend geography yet with the focus on revealing various packets of data at borough-level, without losing the sense of that borough’s place within the city. They called it London Squared.
Working through their design process, they say:
“Maps are excellent for navigating space, showing boundaries, landmarks, and location but lousy at imparting data … (They create) an uneven ground on which to place figures — with important data finding no place to live. During the product development work with Future Cities Catapult, it became clear that there was a need for a way to visual data across all boroughs that did not create a visual bias due to the relative size of individual boroughs. We needed a new, non-geographic system to plot data.” [After the Flood]
We had a few chats with me about it, back and forth during development, but most of this is their insightful work, running with the idea and producing a really useful, malleable chunk of design.
I love that the kink of the Thames is more or less all that’s required to ‘place’ the city (although those of us who did not grow up with the Eastenders title sequence burned into your retina may struggle a little more.)
They did a shuffling of the boroughs’ positions—each indicated by a simple three-letter abbreviation—to enable a contiguous form, but very little indeed. Each of the resulting squares can be packed with data of various forms; potentially from sparklines to bars to concentric circles to alphanumeric to images to heat maps, and so on:
Each square also offers a ‘cell’ shading possibility to convey at-a-glance reading of the entire city. So a single image offers both an overview of the city, as well as multiple borough-level datapoints. We intend to use this with real-time data, as such a map could convey the pulsing variability of urban flows extremely well, whilst an interactive version would enable a click-to-zoom into a particular borough, and then out again to city-scale, perhaps via an intermediate stage of related boroughs. (It offers an alternative view of London to that developed by our Whereabouts project.)
We’ve used it a bit internally, but After the Flood have put it on GitHub and produced a ‘Getting Started’, in order for others to use.
They’re also written up some insights from the design process, which is well worth a read. After the Flood have produced a bit of design work where the outcome seems so simple, obvious and ‘right’ that one wonders why it wasn’t done before. The clever bending of London’s geography to the task at hand, yet retaining the city’s overall imageability, clearly has echoes of Beck’s map. And that is praise indeed.
Ed. By way of further praise, After the Flood would later win an ‘Information is Beautiful’ award for London Squared. And this work was subsequently developed as a book by After the Flood, ‘Cities Squared’. This post was originally published at cityofsound.com on 8 September 2015.
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