The Booth poverty maps crowd-sourcing application

Click here to help us trace Booth's London  or read on to find out more about the Booth map project

Introduction & background

by Neil Stewart, Digital Library Manager, LSE Library

In 2016, a team at LSE Library (including your author) redeveloped our website dedicated to the work of the pioneering Victorian social scientist and businessman Charles Booth, Charles Booth’s London. The site includes Booth’s famous poverty maps of London, and includes an archive of Booth’s team’s research findings in the form of the notebooks. The site included geo-location of the notebooks, meaning that notebooks that included information about specific areas of London were “pinned” to the map at the relevant location. 

Charles Booth's London

We were really happy with the redeveloped site, and we have written about the project and its technical aspects elsewhere. However, two issues became increasingly clear to the team during the project:

  1. That we (and so far as we know no one else) did not have a computer-ready “machine-readable” vector coordinate description of the maps on which the Booth maps were based (the 1897 Ordnance Survey 1:2,500 scale maps). This meant that there were problems with searching the maps on our site: while you could search on modern street names with ease, we had no way of doing the same thing for street names on the Booth maps.
  2. That there was similarly no machine-readable representation of the blocks of colour that Booth and his team applied to the maps, which are used to represent relative levels of poverty and affluence. 

The first problem is being dealt with by a project that will digitise the 1897 Ordnance Survey maps, which will as part of that work create a gazetteer, including vector coordinates of streets, meaning we should be able to solve the “search” problem in due course by applying the gazetteer’s dataset to the map.

The second problem seemed more difficult to tackle. We did some work at LSE Library to try to estimate how long it would take to describe and record street names, coordinates and poverty levels as recorded on the maps. Our estimate ran into the thousands of person hours, not time we could easily spare. We also knew that this would be an important piece of work for us to do: we could apply its findings to the map on the Charles Booth’s London website (for example to allow users to highlight areas of particular poverty classifications), and could release the dataset openly for anyone else who might want to make use of it.

Citizen science to the rescue!

While we pondered this issue, a new project came on the scene: Layers of London. Along with lots and lots of other things, the Layers project and website is concerned with London maps and mapping, as can be seen by the many maps they have applied to their website (including a Booth map!), and community engagement with these maps. We were quick to get in touch with the Layers team, and they were keen to work with us. We agreed that a possible way forward to address the  problem would be to crowd-source volunteer citizen scientists to help us do this work of identification and classification of blocks of colour.

This partnership led to us co-developing a way of recording and classifying these shapes, with Layers’ development partners Error Agency. We used workshopping to develop a method by which users can interact with the Booth maps on the Layers website, and by doing so can mark and classify coloured areas on the map. You can give the classification tool a try over at the Layers of London website. We hope that, as well as helping us identify the colours on the map, it will also be fun for anyone interested in maps and mapping, London, and urban history, giving it as it does a deep-dive into the Booth maps.

The site itself concentrates on making the functionality of tracing shapes, then checking the work that others have done, straightforward and so only includes the basic instructions. These instructions can be read on the site’s homepage. What follows is therefore intended to flesh those instructions out, and to provide some tips on getting the best out of the site.

How to use the website: tracing shapes

The idea with tracing shapes is to enclose coloured areas of the map to form polygonal shapes. Once you have done this, a pop-up menu will appear, asking you to classify the shape you have created as a particular colour (or as “too hard to tell”, a catch-all classification for ambiguously coloured shapes).

The method for tracing shapes is as follows:

  1. Make sure you have signed up for and signed in to the Layers of London website.
  2. Follow the link to navigate to the “Choose a square” page.
  3. Select an uncoloured square to get started (those marked in yellow are ready for checking; those in green have been completed; see below for checking yellow squares).
  4. Hit the “Begin” button to enter “create” mode.
  5. Hit the “Draw a shape” button to begin drawing shapes. You should aim to draw shapes for Booth’s blocks of colour that are within or overlap the boundaries of the square you have chosen (see “Top Tips” below for more on this distinction between the base layer and the colours applied to the maps).
  6. When you have drawn all the shapes in the square, hit the “I’m done!” button which will take you back to the “Choose a square” page, stage 2 above.

If you need to edit or delete a shape you have drawn, you can do so by selecting the relevant tool on the left-hand tool pane.

How to use the website: checking the work of others

To ensure that the tracing has been done correctly, we ask you to verify the shapes already created. To check another person’s work, you will need to select a square marked in yellow at the “Choose a square” page. After doing so, there are two possible workflows.

  • If everything looks correct (i.e. all the shapes in or overlapping the edge of the square in question have been traced correctly and have been categorised properly) you can hit the “Looks good!” button which will verify the square and turn it green on the “Choose a square” page.
  • If there are errors in creating shapes, shapes have been omitted or shapes have been mis-categorised, you can hit the “Edit mode” button which will allow you to correct these mistakes using the editing tools. Once you are happy with your corrections, you can hit “I’m done!”, which will take you back to the “Choose a square” page and will mark the square yellow for someone else to verify.

Top tips

Here are some useful hints and tips to get to grips with classification using the site.

  • If in doubt, refresh the page! This will update the data on the map, and will refresh the display of those map squares that have been coloured yellow (now ready for checking) or green (complete).
  • Starting a new area afresh can feel daunting, particularly if you are presented with a densely populated area of streets with complex shapes. A good approach is to join up the tracing you do with areas already done, or to choose an edge of the map and then to work inwards. This can help with your orientation on the map more generally and will help you get to know particular areas you might be interested in.
  • When tracing shapes on the map, try to draw around the coloured area rather than paying too much attention to the map’s base layer of houses, gardens, street layouts, municipal buildings etc. 
  • Be careful to discern the difference between the base layer and the colour layer applied to the map - when testing and now the site is live, we’ve seen some examples of churches, schools, prisons and other municipal and non-dwelling buildings being traced when they aren’t actually coloured with poverty levels. This screenshot should help to illustrate the distinction:

Get involved & the future!

The easiest way to get involved with the work is to get analysing the map! We are also planning a public editing event, to be held at LSE Library, which will be a chance for those interested to come and edit with project people and like-minded editors- keep an eye on the Layers of London News & Events pages for further information.

When the data collection is complete, we think there will be significant clean-up work to do on the dataset that has been created. Once we have done that, we will consider how the data can be used to enhance the Layers of London and Charles Booth’s London websites, and how we go about releasing the dataset openly for others to make use of. We think there may be scholarly interest in the dataset, and we will explore further possible collaborations. We’re really excited to continue to work with Charles Booth’s research findings, a project that after more than 100 years continues to fascinate and offer new insights into the social sciences, as well as new frontiers of developments in citizen science and data visualisation.


To provide feedback, or for questions about the Booth crowd-sourcing application, you can email the Layers team at [email protected] or the LSE Library team at [email protected]. For news on Layers of London developments, follow Layers on Twitter.