slow down and think about it

Is it summer yet? The Swallow Coffee shop, Shepherd’s Bush

Coffee Shepherd's Bush
Outside the Swallow Coffee Shop on Goldhawk Road

It was a spring day as we walked along Goldhawk Road towards the Swallow Coffee Shop. A sign, hanging above the door alerted us to the location of the cafe: an image of a swallow in flight, no name, just the image. A nod to the coffee houses of old perhaps that would advertise themselves with a picture above their doorway. The cafe is on the corner of Goldhawk Road and Richford Street and immediately strikes you as being more open and airy than some of the shopfronts we’d passed along the way. The counter is on the right as you go in and coffee is by Ozone.

The cakes looked good but sadly the tempting brownie was decorated with pistachio. Often I find that my nut allergy does have the incidental effect of keeping my waistline down. So sadly, once again it was just the long black that day. There is plenty of seating inside the Swallow cafe and we chose a table up the stairs, on a type of mezzanine level towards the back of the cafe. A map of London was on the wall next to us, which we studied a little in order to discover that a bit of artistic license had been taken with the geography. On the wall opposite, another map showed the region of Hammersmith. There is something interesting in the way that these maps were rendered. What was it that the cartographer intended to convey?

Lubrication station or plant stand
From mirrors to fireplaces and the nature of heat, what do you see in a coffee shop?

A sign above some plants indicated a “Lubrication Station”, perhaps needed by the Swallows on their hazardous migration to and from South Africa. Looking down towards the front of the shop it appeared that there was a mirror that I hadn’t previously noticed on the wall. It was a large, circular mirror. How come I had not seen it earlier as I walked in? And then it struck me, when I walked in, it was not a mirror but another framed map. It seemed as if it had changed its appearance because, from my location sitting towards the back of the cafe, the light was being reflected at a very shallow angle and so I was not able to see any of the ‘information’ behind the glass, only the reflections from the street. What appeared to my eyes as a mirror was in fact a map.

What do maps need to convey? A visual idea of the geography? Or perhaps, the way of getting from A to B. If it is the latter, there is no reason that the map should be geographically accurate and moreover, it could appear as a cartoon like strip of information so that you can ‘read’ your directions as you go along. We came across one such map a few years ago at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (see picture). Or, perhaps a more famous example of a geographically inaccurate but perfectly useful map is that of the London Underground. But then, the map may not be about getting from A to B at all but instead, should give an idea of the physical surroundings of a place or indeed could be intended to convey deeper ¬†information such as the poverty maps of Charles Booth. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Booth walked London mapping the levels of poverty (or affluence) in an area. You can access the maps here. In addition to seeing how some things have changed (or have not), the maps reveal how in London areas of relative wealth so often exist side by side with areas of relative poverty.
what information do we want a map to provide
A map at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall offers an alternative depiction of the journey from A to B.

Booth apparently come up with the idea of the maps as he had disagreed with the suggestion that 25% of Londoners lived in poverty. And so he’d set out to conduct a statistical survey for himself. Categorising neighbourhoods into different groups according to relative income or wealth, he discovered that, in fact, 35% of Londoners were living in abject poverty, a worse result than he’d anticipated. His findings led to reforms such as the implementation of noncontributory state pensions and to the development of social surveys.

The work of Charles Booth somehow fits together with the research of John Snow who had similarly mapped the cases in the cholera outbreak of 1854 and so traced the source of the problem to the Broad Street pump. New fields of social research were being developed that relied on maps as a base for seeing the world. How we choose which information to include in the map (and by implication which to omit) and the way we choose to display that information, will affect how quickly our audience, or indeed ourselves, can understand the data presented. Some of our decisions are hidden but may affect how the data is later reported in the media. For example, did Booth define “abject poverty” for his maps in the same way as the previous efforts had shown “poverty” levels of around 25%?

In a world with ever growing amounts of data and eye-catching (click-bait) headlines, it is a problem that affects us still. What are the graphs and maps really telling us? Does the data really confirm our existing beliefs or is the devil in the detail of the display? If we find that our preconceived ideas are refuted (or perhaps worse confirmed), do we have the intellectual honesty to sit back, perhaps with a coffee, and question once more both our beliefs and the data that has challenged them? A cafe such as the Swallow, full of maps and prints, with plenty of seating and a light and friendly environment would be a great place to start.

The Swallow Coffee Shop is at 75 Goldhawk Road, W12 8EH