Destiny of Maps and Maps of Destiny

Destiny of Maps and Maps of Destiny


“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

― Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet


As nascent digital humanists we face new challenges on a regular basis, and such was the nature of our recent assignment. I am a scholar with a background in Classics, Celtic Civilisation and Art History and I admit that I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with maps. My concept of cartography and its value to humanity, was bound up with notions of conquest, exploration, and occasionally, beauty.

During the course of my academic work, I considered maps to be tools for the power-hungry whose cartographic efforts became essential weapons of war, artificial constructs, biased renderings of geographical information with little regard for the earthbound human populations which moved through the real spaces depicted from a quasi-godlike aerial perspective.

That’s not to say that I dislike maps personally, quite the contrary, I collect them. Ordnance Survey Maps have allowed me to explore out-of-the-way archaeological features in my region. Small foldable street maps serve as mementoes of trips to London, Paris and elsewhere. Friends and family have gifted me with others of the same type from Barcelona, Berlin, and Rome. Like many self-proclaimed geeks, I possess a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as well as ones of the Martian and Lunar surfaces. And years ago, in hotel bathroom in Dún Laoghaire, where I was attending a Festival of World Cultures, I found a fascinating map of Karachi.

I enjoy the ordered representation of 3D information on a 2D plane. I appreciate the way a map can give you extra insight into a landscape. It can tell you about geology and topography, natural features such as shorelines, caves and forests. It can give you a sense of place in the world, and in this ostensibly neutral presentation of information, I thought of maps as safe, friendly and non-threatening.

I had a very slight notion that social geographers used maps to illustrate areas of disadvantage and that city planners relied on accurate maps to make projections about where new amenities should be located.

But, up to this point I didn’t consider the power of maps to affect the lot of those with access to them, except in the rather oblique way that they might help lost tourists to find their way to the British Museum, or that they might suggest likely spots where oil-companies might sink an exploratory well.


When I was tasked with participation in a number of projects which rely on a form of User-Generated Content, namely the crowdsourced compilation of spatial data for public use, this provided me with a new, humanitarian lens through which I could appreciate the magic of mapping. However, the experience was one which threw up many unexpected issues and considerations regarding the usage of my personally generated content.

My first encounter was with the Mapswipe app. It was fairly easy to use after the initial tutorial, and I commenced mapping a project in Botswana. The idea behind the project was to assist in malaria control in the region by slow examination of satellite imagery, marking anything that looked like it could be a house, village or hut.

The terrain being mapped was principally arid scrubland and I noticed many features that were very different to the familiar Irish landscape. The satellite imagery was drawn from different sources, so occasionally the resolution would change, making it at times more difficult to interpret whether I was looking at a treetop, a circular bush, or a solitary hut. I learned to look for associated markers of human inhabitation, such as trackways, herds of animals, or desire lines leading to or from nearby water sources. Sometimes I observed what may have been corrals for cattle, or some archaeological features which I was unqualified to guess at their function. I included all of these in the ‘maybe’ category. Overall, I mapped 24 km² of Botswana and discovered 99 objects. As an app, it was oddly satisfying to use. I could quite easily imagine using it to pass time in a long queue. The fact that this content would help in the fight against malaria was a bonus.

This project was being funded by the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), a project which I decided to investigate further. It was to my dismay that I discovered that CHAI was, for all intents and purposes, an apparently defunct organisation. The last update to the blog on its website was from December of 2016.

I rummaged around CHAI’s press releases and found a statement from November 2016 which alerted the public to the decision to have the five members of the board appointed by The Clinton Foundation (including former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea), immediately step down in the case of then-Secretary-of-State Hilary Clinton’s election to the office of President of the United States of America.

In this eventuality, the charity would become an autonomous organisation and the Clinton name would no longer be associated with the CHAI project. The statement suggested that current management would be retained and five new board members would be instated as quickly as possible.

‘All aspects of the transition will be carried out responsibly and seamlessly, with the priority being sustaining the life-saving services upon which millions depend and the extraordinary daily work of CHAI staff who make those services possible…’

In the wake of former Secretary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election, what has become of the priority effort to sustain the ‘extraordinary daily work of CHAI staff?’

As yet there is no sign of any new activity on the CHAI website.

Is the old board still extant?

Is former President Clinton still involved with the provision of funding to the aforementioned ‘life-saving services’?

Has the funding dried up or has malaria somehow been eradicated from Botswana?

There are no straight answers to these questions and the most recent information I could obtain was from an article in the New York Times dated to February 2nd 2017.

Times are tough for those at CHAI in the post-Trump era and the future of many Clinton affiliated projects looks precarious.

“None of it’s resolved,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, a board member of CHAI, which has health programs in 70 countries that include promoting AIDS treatment and strengthening health systems, in a telephone interview from Haiti. “Knowing what to do in this climate is a tough call.”


Were the promised philanthropic donations which underpinned CHAI’s work only contingent on Hilary Clinton’s accession to the United States presidency?

Was true humanitarianism only the preserve of ordinary people who give their time to propel projects forward, and the day-to-day staff of NGOs who do admirable work under harsh conditions for relatively modest salaries?

So who would benefit from the mapping content I generated?

My investigations into this particular humanitarian mapping project left me cynical, and with a bad taste in my mouth.


When the time came to engage with the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team at, I decided to continue with the mission to combat malaria, this time in Zambia. I completed the requisite tiles using ID Editor, again carefully scanning satellite images of the Zambian countryside in an attempt to identify buildings and other structures. The terrain proved very challenging, and due to my lack of local knowledge I couldn’t discern between building types as most seemed to have corrugated metal roofs. In Ireland, we usually associate this roofing material with industrial or agricultural usage, but my knowledge of Zambian building practices was non-existent.

I would have liked to have been more specific when I identified structures, as the HOTOSM user interface allows for such categories as commercial, educational, religious usage etc., but that was sadly not possible. Like Mapswipe, the satellite imagery was drawn from multiple sources, and sometimes it became too pixellated to accurately discern between circular features on the ground.

Was it a circular clearing with a tiny hut that I could see, or was it a termite mound?

Was that a reservoir of some sort, or a patch of land cleared around an electrical transformer housing?

Not being familiar with the pattern of land usage in the country was frustrating and I thought that the project could benefit from a little explanation supplemented by authenticated local knowledge, just a few examples to get one’s eyes keyed in to the landscape, and to give the HOTOSM user some idea of scale. The interface was at times confusing and unwieldy, and that is a huge potential barrier to voluntary usage. HOTOSM compared poorly with Mapswipe in this regard.

I was curious to see what organisation or agency was responsible for this Malaria Elimination Project, so once more I began to delve into the site. To my utter disbelief, I discovered that CHAI was also responsible for this initiative in Zambia. This project commenced on December 1st 2016, the very day that CHAI went dark, so-to-speak, and is scheduled to finish at the end of April of this year.

Are CHAI, as the preeminent organisation which incorporates User Generated Content for spatial mapping in its attempt to support public campaigns to eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa about to crash and burn?

Are we guilty of putting all our trust in one behemoth of an organisation, whose likely impending doom will bring countless anti-malarial initiatives to a grinding halt, and thereby threatening millions of lives on the African continent?

Only time will tell.













William Noel: Revealing the Lost Codex of Archimedes TED Talk

This fascinating TED talk is a few years old by now but it is definitely still worth a watch.

Dr. Will Noel, Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore describes how a private individual purchased and preserved for posterity, this 13th century codex overwritten on  recycled earlier manuscript sheaves which contain lost material by Archimedes.

This magnanimous, unnamed individual did so in the first instance with the noble aim of protecting that which was fragile and of making it freely available to scholars.

And he goes on to explain how a crowdfunding initiative made the analysis of the palimpsest and the subsequent revolutionary discoveries possible. The initial preservation and research was augmented by application of multispectral imaging techniques and using refined X-ray radiation produced by synchrotron of  the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre at Menlo Park.

For some more, general information see

See also the Archimedes Palimpsest Project,

According to Dr. William Noel,  

‘institutions can learn from this. Because institutions at the moment confine their data with copyright restrictions and that sort of thing. And if you want to look at medieval manuscripts on the Web, at the moment you have to go to the National Library of Y’s site or the University Library of X’s site, which is about the most boring way in which you can deal with digital data. What you want to do is to aggregate it all together.’

We in the digital humanities community, especially those involved with palaeography, codicology and manuscript-based research are undeniably far better off than our counterparts of yore when it comes to gaining access to the collections of multiple institutions, which, happily have been widely digitised and many are conveniently available at our individual desktops around the globe. However, there are hundreds of lifetimes worth of work left to do in these fields and anything which can further elucidate and advance these disciplines through these new digital media and tools will be invaluable.

William Noel puts forward the case for a sharing of resources and the increased accessibility to these materials on the world wide web:

‘Because the Web of the ancient manuscripts of the future isn’t going to be built by institutions. It’s going to be built by users, by people who get this data together, by people who want to aggregate all sorts of maps from wherever they come from, all sorts of medieval romances from wherever they come from,people who just want to curate their own glorious selection of beautiful things. And that is the future of the Web. And it’s an attractive and beautiful future, if only we can make it happen.’

I swear it’s not an existential crisis!


Who am I?:

My name is Andrea Lane. I am a graduate of University College Cork in Ireland.

Where am I coming from? (academically speaking):

My BA was in Celtic Civilisation and Classics, and I subsequently completed a Higher Diploma in History of Art. I am presently a candidate on UCC’s MA Digital Arts and Humanities programme. I have many and diverse interests: Early and Medieval Irish, Latin, Classical Greek, Art History, Palaeography, Codicology, Manuscript Imaging, Text-Encoding, Book Illustration.

But who am I really? (generally speaking):

I have a huge curiosity about loads of other things too: Archaeology, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Neurology, Physics, Astronomy, Consciousness Studies, Anthropology, Ecology, Sociology of the 19th Century, Gothic Literature, Visual and Symbolic Literacy, Editing Practices, Music, Botany, Medicine, Comparative Religion, Mythology, Podcasts, Calligraphy, History of Science, Museum Studies, Medical Herbology, Science Fiction, Linguistics, Data Analysis, The History of Printing, Mycology, Language Acquisition and Pedagogy, Egyptology, Anatomy and Physiology, Alternative Medicine…At least those are the ones at the forefront of my magpie-mind!

But who am I at heart? (in my everyday life):

I am a dog-lover, movie-enthusiast, quiz aficionado, book-hoarder, puzzle-solver, eclectic music-collector, Monty Python fan, occasional meditator, and all-round big kid with a uniquely individual dancing style which has been dubbed ‘unforgettable!’

Where I am going to? (Fingers crossed):

Besides the fact that I want to keep learning new things for the rest of my life, I am currently very interested in how digital technologies might be used to improve and expand the discipline of Palaeography.

The dead arose and appeared to many…

On this Halloween night, it seems particularly appropriate to discuss a project named after a man who returned from the dead. The Lazarus Project, a not-for-profit initiative, was founded by Dr. Gregory Heyworth, Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi. It grew out of a wish to unite the traditional academic disciplines of ancient language scholarship, textual analysis, and palaeography with the emergent technologies of the digital age, such as multi-spectral imaging, and the chemical analysis of inks and materials. This hybridisation of two unrelated fields resulted in a new hyperdiscipline which Heyworth labels Textual Science. And with the help of a substantial grant from the U.S. government, The Lazarus Project was born. It has been called to the rescue of many endangered manuscripts thus far, in seven countries, and the potential contribution such technology could yet make to the study of the 60,000 manuscripts currently residing in practically illegible and precarious conditions is both staggering and awe-inspiring.

Project: An attempt to collate and classify online paleographical resources


I am currently gathering information for a general survey of the spectrum of Palaeographical and Manuscript-based Research resources available online. This task, although fascinating and enlightening, is nevertheless very daunting. Not simply because of the plethora of sites and projects, the many languages of these host sites and the specialised linguistic skills required to make sense of the materials therein contained, but also because of the diverse aims and methodologies espoused by these diverse projects. To say that I am a trifle overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content is an understatement! I will attempt to develop some sort of criteria by which I will classify these resources and perhaps assess their merits and flaws. If anyone has any suggestions as to how I might tackle this mammoth task, then I would greatly appreciate any comments, insights or links to relevant sites and resources. Or failing that you might want to simply wish me luck!

In principio erat verbum…In the beginning there was the word.


My name is Andrea and I am a learning-junkie. Here begins my next learning adventure. I am embarking on a journey to become a digital humanist. I am not 100% sure yet what that means exactly! Nevertheless, in so doing, I am challenging my ingrained papyrophilia, and forcing myself to go where I have never felt truly comfortable. Yes my friends, I am e-voyaging into the nebulous cloud of confusion which lies at the heart of the dangerous digital realm. Join me on my quest to take by storm the very new and shiny field of digital humanities. Watch me  as I try to battle emergent technologies, as I attempt to reach some sort of accord with new media and endeavour to crack the conundrum of ‘what it means to be human  in the digital age’.

Given that I am not necessarily a fan of novelty for its own sake, and that I would feel more competent with a calligraphy quill than with a haptic feedback device, this is probably the most difficult challenge I have ever set myself,  and I once gave astrophysics a go!

So, in the spirit of openness, interdisciplinarity and self-reflection, which I am coming to realise are watchwords for this nascent discipline, I invite you to join me on this trek into the unknown. Share in the inevitable failures, and hopefully occasional triumphs of a woman whose favourite languages are dead ones, whose favourite works of art are centuries old and whose favourite books were written and illustrated long before the printing-press was even a twinkle in Gutenberg’s eye.

This should be fun.