MapReader project takes Lancaster lecturer in award-winning direction

Dr Katherine McDonough in front of book shelves

A Lancaster University lecturer is to receive a prestigious award for her work in developing software to enable the computational study of maps at a large scale.

Dr Katherine McDonough, a Lecturer in Digital Humanities based in the Department of History, is to receive the Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History at the American Historical Association’s annual awards ceremony in San Francisco in January.

The ‘MapReader’ (2022) project contributes to a new methodology of distant viewing for maps by applying a computer vision pipeline to historical maps and is the product of a radical collaboration in the Living with Machines project.

This open-source software allows scholars to study maps at a large scale. For some years, libraries and archives have been making images of historical maps available to browse in web interfaces.

MapReader makes it possible to search the visual content of maps by the thousands, to discover patterns in the information on maps across large areas, even entire nations.

The researchers who created the software developed an innovative approach to computationally deriving information from digitized maps, while also publishing their approach as peer-reviewed scholarship.

Dr McDonough will receive the award on January 4 for work undertaken at Lancaster University and at The Alan Turing Institute (ATI) in London, where she was a Senior Research Associate in History and maintains an affiliation as a Senior Research Fellow through a partial secondment from Lancaster.

The award is shared with: Daniel CS Wilson, Kasra Hosseini, Zalando Research, Rosie Wood, Andrew Smith and Kalle Westerling, all from ATI, together with Daniel van Strien, Hugging Face; Olivia Vane, The Economist; Jon Lawrence, Exeter University; Ruth Ahnert, Queen Mary University of London and ATI and Kaspar Beelen, University of London.

Dr McDonough said: "Working on MapReader with the Living with Machines team at the Turing has been a highlight of my career so far in the UK. I’m thrilled to now also be integrating the project with research at Lancaster.

“It is still not traditional in the discipline of History to commit significant time to non-book-shaped outputs.

“Recognition of the hard work from the whole team in the shape of this prize from the AHA is a positive example of valuing the shared intellectual and technical effort represented in research software."

The American Historical Association is the largest professional organization serving historians in all fields and all professions. The AHA is a trusted voice advocating for history education, the professional work of historians, and the critical role of historical thinking in public life.

The Alan Turing Institute is the national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, with headquarters at the British Library.

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