Locating London’s Pasts

Last week I attended a seminar on the latest venture from Sheffield and Hertfordshire Universities’ family of digital history projects, Locating London’s Past. The aim is to create a sort of geographical front end to a number of London-centred datasets, among them its sister project, the famed Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Using a remarkable rasterized version of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London, the first Ordnance Survey map, parish boundaries, and underpinned by the ubiquitous Google map, the data can be plotted in the context of a contemporary city.

The site isn’t live yet, but attendees were able to have a play with the beta version, and I found it very impressive. First thing I did was check for cases of monetary crime in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their distribution across the region. In a couple of minutes, I had formulated a query and got it displayed in front of me. St James Clerkenwell, St Giles in the Fields and St Martins in the Fields, all outside the City of London, came out top. It has been suggested that coining was a pursuit often practiced in slums; all three areas contained notorious rookeries.

This was a quick experiment and one shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The number of cases was quite low – just 9 in St Giles, if memory serves. Population density and geographical size of the parish need to be taken into account. But it does illustrate the possibilities, and the ease of use, of this site.

There were a few bugs and problems. The old difficulty of markers overlapping one another hasn’t been solved with this site. A toggleable, full-window view of the map would be useful, as zooming in on an area pushes its neighbours out of sight, diminishing context. The lack of unique URLs makes bookmarking and referencing very difficult.

I also felt that it was difficult to see landmarks and thus orient oneself: a number of the test cases claimed to show marked differences between the City proper and Westminster, but without this political geography being explicitly marked on the map it looked more like a contrast between an indistinct west and east. And if this boundary had been explicit, the picture may have been described in a different way. I have a hunch that there are very important divergences between the City of London within the Walls, and the extramural wards. This is not easy to see on the site as it stands.

A concluding discussion on digital history and GIS covered issues such as the lack of an academic GIS infrastructure, the lack of training available and the possibilities of importing and exporting data. The need for easy mapping software was only briefly raised, although the website dotspotting was recommended.

What struck me later was that Locating London’s Past wasn’t your standard GIS-based website but a real investigative tool, requiring a high level of engagement on the part of the user. With many map-centric websites one can do little more than take a virtual walk through an area, looking at a restricted range of points. With LLP, one has to formulate a question, translate it into a search query and then analyze the output, which may be suggestive in itself but by no means obvious. The difference is partly due to the enormous quantity of geo-referenced data LLP has, so much that it cannot all fit on a map. But there’s a qualitative aspect as well, that puts the stress not on cartography but on the database. Without a question, there is nothing to see.

Tim Hitchcock has said that London is the most digitized city in the world. More of its records have been made available online than anywhere else in the world. There’s more to do of course, most notably in relation to areas transpontine, but the focus now has to be on how we use this material. Locating London’s Past offers not just a visualization of data, but also a way of thinking about different uses of it.

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