There's a team building a four-dimensional computer map of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, seen from Calton Hill. Image: Getty.

Its frantic approach made practitioners wince but, through Time Team, Channel 4 made archeology prime time entertainment for over two decades. That fact alone vividly illustrates a widely shared fascination amongst the public for peeling back the layers of the past and peering at the lives of those who came before us.

Now that Time Team is off our screens, cutaway junkies are having to look elsewhere for their fix. Fortunate, then, that the team at the University of Edinburgh working on the Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) project are developing a way that anyone, anywhere, can construct a digital historical atlas.

Professor Richard Rodger the project’s lead researcher says that MESH’s founding “philosophy is to make the cartographic information easily available in digital form to the public… Allow historians access… produce maps of the city, mak[ing] Edinburgh’s history known [and] available to its communities”.

That all sounds very worthy – but it’s merely the start of MESH’s ambition.

How the distribution of butchers shops changed over 165 years. Image: MESH.

Since the project received a £633,000 grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it’s mapped between 80 and 90 per cent of modern day Edinburgh has been mapped. This is important, because MESH’s approach blends the picture of contemporary Edinburgh provided by OpenStreetMap with historical geological and cartographic data.

This process makes it is possible to create accurate maps that trace Edinburgh’s development across time. Users can watch as the New Town takes shape, or use traditional historical sources like trade directories to plot the historical location of butchers shops or pharmacies.

Rodger says the maps have “show[n] [him] things [he] just wasn’t aware of”: for instance, he has recently been using them to explore the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector and the way that this influenced patterns of suburbanisation.

MESH is currently developing an array of tools that will allow school pupils “to inspect the city’s [development across time] and ask questions of it”. This is where the “social” aspect of the history that MESH is interested in shines through. By tracing the development of a wide range of activities, for instance “eating and drinking across time”, it is possible for the researchers to humanise the raw data and bring users closer to their forebears.

A sample of the team's research. Image: MESH.

Rodger is keen to point to the potential political implications of the work that he is doing. MESH’s work opens up new dimensions in investigating traditional social history concerns around the socioeconomic and spatial origins of inequality, whilst also pointing at new questions, especially ones about open access to data.

The latter issue is one that harks back to social history’s founding assumption that the decisions of those with power and wealth require scrutiny. In a decidedly Time Team turn of phrase Rodger describes MESH’s work as excavating the “historical data miden”. This doesn’t mean see the data as necessarily belonging to the past. Citing a report by the Danish government, which estimates that its decision in 2002 to make its address files open access, has boosted the economy by  €14m a year, he suggests that free access to contemporary and historical mapping data could offer a myriad of benefits to, for instance, those engaged with the planning and premises licensing processes.


For Rodger the humanities, through initiatives like MESH, can provide a firm foundation and historical underpinning to the development of smart cities. In doing so, the tools MESH are developing offer everyone, whether in an academic chair on an armchair, the chance to develop a historical cuttaway without risking the rain.

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Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.