Archive for the 'mapping' Category

paper bagged

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry on the back of a paper bag. It was a review of a chapter from a Calvino book – the author who, as Kieran Long once twittered, architects always turn to when they want to appear arty and sensitive. At the risk of further proving that theory I can honestly say it remains one of the most satisfying posts I’ve ever written. Lately I’ve been trying to get our office to think about paper (and bags) more.

For most of the latter half of 2009 I was working on the city’s new housing development project, the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust. Like many other local authorities around the country, Birmingham hurried to stake its claim for a share of the funding made available directly to local authorities for the first time in many years. Alongside another local practice we had 5 sites to take from nothing to a detailed planning submission in about 6 weeks. This is an insanely short amount of time. Weekly design team meetings with numerous departments ensued and the process was, to put it mildly, intense. Turning to others for moral support, encouragement and inspiration was an absolute must; as was the occasional bottle of Rioja.

Giles Lane helped by offering me a new notebook. Not the regulation issue Moleskine, almost as cliched as the Calvino reference, but a bespoke notebook just for us which we could make with our own bare hands. Giles and Proboscis have been using their Diffusion notebook format in consultation work and arts projects for some time. Printed (crucially) on single sided A4 the format is carefully designed to cut and fold quickly into a small, robust A6 book that can be either landscape or portrait.

Here’s a video showing how to fold one:

Diffusion eBooks from stml on Vimeo.

Got it?

We made a blank one, experimenting with different templates to assist with writing and drawing and I carried it around in my jeans pocket for most of the 6 weeks, proving that the design is perfectly robust enough despite only being crafted from a few folds. What I’m most interested in though is what happens when it’s finished. I can unfold it, and because I can unfold it I can easily scan it in and share it with others or work over it again with other tools. Chunks of it would quickly get extracted and thrown into presentations to the client and ultimately some of the sketches informed the design and access statement that went with the planning application. That’s interesting; the ease and speed with which you can align the analogue with the digital.

Then there was Owen Hatherley. I asked Owen to help me fill in the back story for the other team members and make sure we knew where we’d been before we decided where we wanted to go. He wrote a short essay on the history of municipal housing, talking us through projects such as Eric Lyon’s Span housing and Sheffield’s Gleadless Valley. Initially I gave it to Birmingham City Council in standard A4 format, but later when self-publishing a booklet became possible with Gile’s I could create my own notebook, this time by uploading a PDF then getting it back immediately in the Diffusion format to fold and issue myself. You can download a copy yourself from the library. That’s interesting too, I self-published a book.

More recently, when the dust had settled and it came time to tell other people what we’ve been doing lately at the West Midlands Built Environment and Design Fair I published a newspaper in about 48 hours with the help of

Axis Design news - page 2

Like, connects a web interface to a production process but this time it gives you the power to command a newspaper printing facility usually reserved for massive print runs. You can upload a PDF of any design as long as it follows the template size or you can use the newpaperclub interface to upload text and images from your machine or source either from other locations on the web such as blog entries or flickr pages.

Axis Design news - page 5

I’ve rarely seen a web service in early beta stage nail the interface design so succesfully first time. It adjusts the 4 column layout and shows a clear snapshot each time you make an adjustment. I pulled in text from here at and lifted images from my practice flickr account and turned out a 12 page newspaper in little more than an afternoon. 2 days and £120 later I had 100 beautiful objects to give away to clients and colleagues. We gave them out along with bookleteers by the staff in paper bags that had been rubber stamped with our logo.

WMdesignfair-axisdesign (2)

WMdesignfair-axisdesign (1)

So it’s a useful PR tool and in the same way Moo mini-cards still do after all these years it’ll help me cause a stir in a generally conservative, predictable industry; but what else? What interests me most about tools like newspaperclub is how I might be able to connect it with the hyperlocal debate and the work a practice like ours does with neighbourhoods like Blurton in cities like Stoke on Trent. If I can plug the outputs from amateur community blogging quickly and cheaply into professional looking trusted formats like a newspaper then the credibility, the reach and the power of the voices being supported become reinforced. Not only that but you can leave it on a bus for someone else to read and you’re not likely to do that with an iPad.

Before you wrap your chips in it however, there’s something else you could do when you retrieve it from the bus. The bookleteer experience teaches the value of being able to easily send the paper format you produced with the digital tools back into pixels to be worked on again. There are more layers to be added, further annotation to be inserted and new ideas to be traced.

When I spoke about the project at Be2camp Birmingham last year I finished by enthusing about the Walking Papers project created to allow people to annotate simple paper copies of their chosen section of Open Street Map. Once complete they can be scanned in again and traced over thanks to the QR code that aligns the analogue with the digital automatically. Self publishing formats like bookleteer and newspaperclub are perfect for this type of process, flipping constantly between screen and paper (and indeed the experiments at SXSW have begun to explore this), but what I’ve come to realise is that I need the process to take place at many scales. What I need is a walking papers process that works on a building scale.

This collaboration between paper and screen knows no limits. It won’t care about file formats and it couldn’t give a damn if you’re a Mac or that Windows 7 was your idea. There’ll be no more excuses for a lack of communication.

And I’ll be able to go back to writing on paper bags.

Of course back in the day, the oldest and wisest of us knew that instinctively.


(picture circa 1997, taken from 2005 blog entry “Death of a Drawing Board“)

data landscape

Monday, May 18th, 2009


Question answered:

cityofsound says:

It was a conversation between Matt Jones and I, wherein he sketched out his idea (using your notebook it would seem) about a kind of perspectival layered data landscape, building up from Dopplr and related web services – in the manner of the classic New Yorker cover on ‘the x view of the world’ …

I think.

There & Here

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

I’ve been itching to tell you about this for months, ever since Matt last put me up for the night at Hotel Webb and gave me a sneak preview. The other half of the ever-inspirational Schulze & Webb has published the results of his Bendy Maps research and the finished product is even more beautiful and game-changing than I ever imagined.

“Imagine a person standing at a street corner. The projection begins with a three-dimensional representation of the immediate environment. Close buildings are represented normally, and the viewer himself is shown in the third person, exactly where she stands.

As the model bends from sideways to top-down in a smooth join, more distant parts of the city are revealed in plan view. The projection connects the viewer’s local environment to remote destinations normally out of sight.”

A map projection that simultaneously places you in your current location and future destination, it offers all the potency of well understood mental wayfinding devices and imagery in one single drawing. The potential, as both a drawing technique for urban design proposals as well as real-time guide for travellers, is huge.

Those well understood devices of course include references to ancient, seminal texts such as Lynchian ideas of nodes, boundaries and paths etc., but in the title of the project itself – ‘Here & There’ – lies another connection to the world of mid-20th century urban design theory explored here in past entries: Gordon Cullen’s Townscape.

From our previous entry:

“Place…is concerned with our reactions to the position of our body in the environment. This is as simple as it appears to be. It means, for instance, that when you go into a room you utter to yourself the unspoken words ‘I am outside IT, I am entering IT, I am in the middle of IT’. At this level of conciousness we are dealing with a range of experience stemming from the major impacts of exposure and enclosure.

Arising out of this sense of identity or sympathy with the environment … we discover that no sooner do we postulate a HERE than automatically we must create a THERE, for you cannot have one without the other. Some of the greatest townscape effects are created by a skillful relationship between the two…”

Which you may remember was followed by a some other examples supported by the imagery in Chuck Jones’ Pepe Le Pew cartoons.

You can read more about bendy maps on the S&W blog and order your own copy on the official project page or read more about it in this month’s Wired UK. I’ll certainly be ordering a copy for my wall, but as beautiful as it is I still can’t help dreaming about a version rendered like a letratone covered Cullen sketch or Chuck Jones animation cell.

OpenStreetMap Birmingham

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Despite being unsuccessful in the Show Us A Better Way bid, I’m busy hatching plans to develop the neighbourhood activity map that I pitched for, thanks to the help of Tom Chance from Bioregional who I met at be2camp. I also need help from the Open Street Map community though to commence the cartography. Cloudmade put me in touch with Andy Robinson from the local group and he invited me to the next meeting – at the pub.

It’s a dirty job etc. My timing was perfect, as I discovered they were hours away from officially announcing the completion of the Birmingham map – the first English city to do so.

I distinctly remember the launch of I also distinctly remember thinking it was a crazy idea, despite the fact that other examples like Wikipedia were beginning to make a difference. Mapping the whole world? By hand? Nuts.

I can’t remember the last time I was so pleased to have been so utterly wrong. Here’s a beautiful video showing exactly how wrong I was in full technicolour.

OSM 2008: A Year of Edits from ItoWorld on Vimeo.

“It’s very satisfying to see a complete city mapped in OpenStreetMap. Four years ago when this project was created we were looking at a blank screen and most commentators thought we were crazy.” said Andy Robinson, secretary of the OpenStreetMap Foundation and a prolific mapper in the West Midlands.

Quite. There’s also a video available on the group’s Mappa Mercia site of Andy and his fellow mappers drawing their traces all over our city during the last two years.

So now we have a map. What do we do with it? Anything we damn well want of course, which is precisely the point. The possibilities for community driven cartography explorations are endless. Anecdotal, human, personal and empowering marks to be made over a map that boasts a greater accuracy than any other online or satnav maps.

I look forward to deploying it, adding to it and promoting it. I’m going to start with the reason I was talking about @podnosh in the tweet from the pub – it’s time we included it in one of the other innovative online communities we have here in Brum: the Social Media Surgery.