Foregrounding Human Stories in Quantitative Data

The Mapping Black London project is built from two large databases, together containing 1013 rows of data (as of 28 April) – a number only set to increase over the coming months. Given the vast amount of data that we are working with, one of the challenges presented to the Mapping Black London team has been how to ensure individual stories can be heard alongside the wider patterns we are presenting. In other words, we have been faced with the challenge of ensuring that historic individuals do not become just ‘points on a map’…

One solution to this problem has been to highlight the stories of particularly prominent individuals. This can be done by creating a separate map specifically for an individual, tracing all the locations said individual visited in London. Such a process thus turns mapping into a tool to amplify individual stories and allows the possibility of highlighting, for example, Una Marson’s London story.

Maps for prominent individuals nonetheless have a couple of disadvantages. The first arises from the very concept of a ‘prominent individual’ itself. The question arises of what makes one person’s story more worthy of attention than others. An answer to this could be the degree of public or academic interest in a figure, but by only using this as our metric we are risking telling familiar stories that do little to add to our previous knowledge. 

The second disadvantage arises from gaps in the story being told. Due to the nature of our research for Mapping Black London, instead of having one fluid story of a person’s time in the city, we instead have a collection of interesting episodes and anecdotes drawn from disparate sources. We know little, for example, about the locations where many of the individuals we discuss arrived in London and thus we lack a clear starting point for many of the story maps. Some individuals – such as Una Marson – left London and returned all during the span of 1935-1947, yet a map struggles to fill in the ‘gap’ during which the individual is absent.

Pop-up descriptions are another way in which we have attempted to integrate personal stories into our wider patterns. We limited ourselves to descriptions approximately three sentences in length in order to ensure that we were being concise and not overly verbose. This was enough space to tell an interesting story in many of our descriptions, an example being the following evocative description for Tilbury air raid shelter: 

Site of an overcrowded ‘hellhole’, where 16,000 Londoners, including black Londoners, took shelter during bombing raids in 1940. ‘Every race and colour in the world were represented there,’ wrote a visitor, ‘whites, negroes, Chinese, hindus, Polynesians, levantines, Eastern Europeans, Jews, gentiles, Moslems and probably sun-worshippers were all piled there in miscellaneous confusion’.

That being said, there are two problems with short descriptions. The first comes from locations we lack little information on. Compare the above description with the following for the 41 New Compton Street:

Site of a nightclub owned by Sierra Leoneon Ernest Marke. 

That is the entire description; we simply do not know anything else about the place, not even its name!

Yet is should be emphasized that as well as providing a useful tool of analysis in its own right, mapping projects like these can also be just a starting point for future research where the experiences of an ever greater number of people, and the larger historical processes of which they were part, receive the attention they deserve.