Research Associate, Digital History

Alan Turing Institute London United Kingdom Research Programmes
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Company Description

The Alan Turing Institute is the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. The Institute is named in honour of the scientist Alan Turing and its mission is to make great leaps in data science and artificial intelligence research in order to change the world for the better.


‘Machines Reading Maps’ (MRM) is an AHRC- and NEH-funded research project based both at The Alan Turing Institute and the University of Southern California that aims to change the way that humanists, heritage professionals, and the general public interact with maps. They constitute a significant body of global cultural heritage, and are being scanned at a rapid pace in the US and UK. However, most critical investigation of maps continues on a small scale, through close ‘readings’ of a few maps. Individual maps communicate through visual grammars, supplemented by text. But text on maps is an almost entirely untapped source for understanding how knowledge of place is constructed. Investigating map content at scale can teach us about what has been preserved and omitted in the cartographic record. Such knowledge is a key starting point for understanding why using map text to enrich collection metadata may be advisable (when collection records lack any, or only the most superficial, geographic or locational information) or potentially harmful (for example, when map text replicates colonial power structures).

We envision a future where map collections can be searched based on their spatial content, similar to the way that digitised newspaper collections enable full-text searching across scanned pages. This project contributes to reversing the fortunes of historic map collections. MRM will enable researchers and cultural institutions to generate and analyze map text data across collections and institutions, contributing to metadata creation and decolonization efforts, and enhancing accessibility and discoverability of un- or minimally-catalogued sheets.

Advancing software tools for handling new types of maps is essential to making text extraction a method that can be used in libraries and archives around the world. MRM generates data from scanned map collections and builds community among map and data curators, metadata and digital scholarship specialists, historians, and geographic information and data scientists. Working with partners at the National Library of Scotland, British Library, and the Library of Congress, this work unites research questions about the spatial experience of industrialization in 19th-c. Great Britain and social change in US cities during the 20th c. with GIScience methods for processing historical maps at scale.


Machines Reading Maps is looking for a Research Associate (18 months) to work on creating and reading map text datasets. The candidate may be a historian with a background in spatial analysis or who has used maps as primary sources, or a digital humanist, GLAM professional, or data scientist with experience working with computational methods to process map collections or other geospatial data. Our goal is to find a colleague who can think critically about scanned map collections and how collecting text from maps can transform humanities research.

You will work closely with the UK PI (Dr. Katherine McDonough) as well as the US Project Director (Deborah Holmes-Wong, USC) and US Co-Director (Prof. Yao-Yi Chiang). There will be opportunities to collaborate with the whole team, cultural heritage partner organisations, as well as the humanities and data science community at the Turing. Beyond this, you will build community with international researchers and GLAM professionals with an interest in our methods. You will play an active role in shaping and sharing our method for unlocking text on maps, including data acquisition, developing and writing up research articles, and teaching GLAM and humanities audiences how to use these methods.

This is a collaborative, trans-Atlantic research project, and so it is crucial that you enjoy working with others (synchronously and asynchronously) and are responsive within an iterative research process. You will have an opportunity to develop a research project using map text data, under the mentorship of the UK PI and other project leaders. Opportunities and support for professional development will be available within the Turing and externally.


You will help oversee data acquisition, curation, processing, and interpretation alongside the project’s other members. You will collaborate with the team on generalisable workflows to identify and enrich text data on maps. This includes iterating the process of creating gold standards for our selected historical map collections and thinking critically about how to develop a humanistic approach to creating and working with map text as data. You will write tutorials for in-person and online workshops on the tools we (co-)develop. To demonstrate the value of map text data, you will collaborate with the National Library of Scotland, the Living with Machines project at the Turing, the British Library, and the Library of Congress on use cases for nineteenth-century map collections (including UK Ordnance Survey maps and US Sanborn and UK Goad fire insurance maps, among others).

Other duties

  • Develop and publish collaborative research using project data and methods
  • Design and deliver tutorials as part of collaborative work
  • Contribute to the humanities and open science communities at the Turing
  • Attend and present at UK and international conferences
  • Facilitate trans-Atlantic project management
  • Learn new data processing and analysis skills as necessary



  • Research Associate/Senior Research Associate level: PhD or equivalent experience in History, Digital Humanities, Geography, GIScience, Information Science, or other data science background/related technical discipline.
  • Research Assistant level: Near completion of a PhD or equivalent level of qualification in machine learning or in a related technical discipline.
  • Experience working with spatial data using computational methods
  • Experience working in at least one programming language (we work primarily with Python). A formal background in computer science is not required.
  • Excellent written, graphical and verbal communication skills including the ability to present complex or technical information, and to liaise effectively with historians, curators, data scientists, and other stakeholders outside the research community.
  • Evidence of high-quality publication(s) in a relevant field (published or in-press) commensurate with your career stage.
  • Works with others to make collaborative decisions for their team
  • Ability to use own judgement to analyse and solve problems.
  • Ability to organise working time, take the initiative, and carry out research independently, under the guidance of the PI.
  • Leading workshops and designing pedagogical materials is required as part of the role
  • Ability to learn new skills (for example, advanced computational methods)
  • Flexible attitude towards work
  • Commitment to EDI principles and to the Organisation values


  • Knowledge of map history and/or early modern or modern British or US history
  • Experience working with cultural heritage records and metadata standards (e.g. MARC, DublinCore, etc.) and Linked Open Data
  • Experience working with large data
  • Experience of research collaboration including co-writing papers
  • An understanding of the importance of good practices for producing reliable software and reproducible analyses (e.g., version control, issue tracking, automated testing, package management, literate analysis tools such as Jupyter)
  • Experience with basic project management workflows (e.g. Github project boards)

Other information


If you are interested in this opportunity, please click the apply button below. You will need to register on the applicant portal and complete the application form including your CV, cover letter and contact details for three referees. If you have questions about the role, please contact Dr. Katherine McDonough by email [email protected]. If you would like to apply using a different format or have questions about the application process, please contact Recruitment on 0203 862 3340, or email [email protected].

Shortlisted candidates will be asked to prepare a 10-minute presentation demonstrating how your experience and research interests will advance Machines Reading Maps project goals.

The ideal start date is June 2021.

CLOSING DATE FOR APPLICATIONS: 21 March 2021 at 23:59.


This full-time post is offered on a fixed-term basis for 18 months. The annual salary is £36,000-£40,000 plus excellent benefits, including flexible working and family friendly policies,

Candidates who have not yet been officially awarded their PhD will be appointed as Research Assistant at a salary of £34,000 per annum


The Alan Turing Institute is committed to creating an environment where diversity is valued and everyone is treated fairly. In accordance with the Equality Act, we welcome applications from anyone who meets the specific criteria of the post regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender reassignment, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

Reasonable adjustments to the interview process will be made for any candidates with a disability.

Please note all offers of employment are subject to obtaining and retaining the right to work in the UK and satisfactory pre-employment security screening which includes a DBS Check.

Full details on the pre-employment screening process can be requested from [email protected].