Visualizing time

For the last two years, I have been very interested in visualizing data that emerges within my particular field: literature. This interest emerged as I read Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees at the same time that I was experimenting with using GIS tools like Google Earth as a portion of the analysis in the last chapter of my dissertation. In my last year as a graduate student, a fellowship in the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching gave me additional time to begin experimenting with timelines. Timelines in literary studies were nothing new, but I wondered if it would be possible to have a class collaboratively build one in a manner similar to writing a wiki. The result was–in turn–a collaboration with Jason Jones (@jbj) where I coded a timeline, he designed an assignment, and his students created the data for a timeline of the Victorian Age. I’ve since had the chance to play with the tool in my own classes.

Jason and I both thought that timelines would be a fruitful subject for conversation THATCampers. And as many others have done, I thought I would share my original THATCamp proposal and then propose some ideas about where a discussion might go:

I would like discuss the different web-based tools and software that can be used to produce interactive and collaborative timelines. The presentation would involve demonstrating the different tools, showing the strengths and the weaknesses of each one, and producing a finished product. The tools would range from CHNM’s Timeline Builder to xtimeline and from Bee Docs Timeline 3D to the Timeline and Exhibit widgets that were developed in MIT’s Simile project. Having already spent some time with these tools, I think that the tools from Simile might be the most interesting to THATCamp participants due to their flexibility in representing data in multiple ways, including color coding events, sorting events, and with GIS data, as well as the ability to grab data from sources as diverse as a Google Docs spreadsheet or Twitter. Perhaps the best demonstration of the usefulness of a timeline would be to create–during the session/event–a timeline of THATCamp.

My current thinking:

As I’ve been preparing for THATCamp, I have gone ahead and evaluated as many of the timeline tools as I’ve had time for. I’ll be looking at another one or two tomorrow. I’ve gone ahead and created a spreadsheet listing the abilities of these different tools, along with some evaluation. Admittedly, some of the categories that I was using to evaluate the timelines stem from my deep involvement with the Simile widgets, and so the cases might not stack up as being completely fair to the competition.

Also, wanting to blend together both streams of data visualization that seemed valuable to me, I’ve also expanded on the original timelines that I designed for my courses by adding a Google Maps view this week. You can choose to either look at one view at a time or a dual view.

While a conversation could certainly be held about the different strengths and weaknesses of these different tools, most of the timeline tools that are available are going to be fairly easy for THATCampers to pick up and run with. The most complicated among them is the Simile tool, but I’ve heard there’s a fairly straightforward tutorial on building your own. Instead (or in addition to), I wonder if it could be possible to have a conversation about other possible research and pedagogical uses for timelines than those to which Jason and I have put them to use thus far. One obvious apporach would be to timeline a particular text (say, Slaughterhouse-Five) rather than a contextual time period. But what else could we do with timelines to make them valuable?

Moreover, I wonder if a discussion about visualizing time could be a part of a larger discussion about visualization that seems to be on the minds of other THATCampers (at least per their blog posts) such as Tonya Howe and Amanda Watson. How best can we use such visualizations in our research and/or teaching? At what point are there diminishing returns on such projects? Since these tools are relatively easy to learn (as opposed to programming languages), are they a good gateway tool for “traditional faculty” to begin comfortably integrating new technologies into their research/teaching? And, perhaps most broadly, what is the relationship between digital humanities and visualization

(I should meniton that while Jason and I proposed related ideas to THATCamp, this post is my own. So don’t hold him responsible for my shortcomings in expression.)

6 Responses to “Visualizing time”

  1. Jeffrey McClurken Says:

    Brian, thanks for the spreadsheet of options in this areas.

    I’ve had a number of students use Simile to create timelines for various projects and found it to be fairly flexible. Some students were more willing to play around with it to figure out what they could do with it. [See, for example, ]

    I really like the idea of these as “gateway” tools. These might appeal to a faculty member in history who doesn’t see the value in Twitter, blogs, or other new media tools.

    Sounds like a good session.

  2. Eric Johnson Says:

    Brian, this sounds terrific. I’m particularly interested in your dual view timeline (because place and time are so often interconnected in history) and in the student-driven (which is to say, crowdsourced) approach to feeding in data. How did you manage the back-end once the students provided data?

    I’d love to see an interface where the crowd can easily and directly populate (and subsequently edit) the fields that lead to the XML that gets used in a timeline like the one from Simile.

    I’ve done some noodling with Simile and, like Jeff’s students, have found it to be pretty easy to use. But I look forward to seeing what else is out there for other similar projects we’re contemplating.

  3. Frédéric Clavert Says:

    Hi Brian,

    thanks to your tutorial, I could make this: quite easily (in French)

    There’s a use of timeline/visualization which is interesting: historians can use them to adress other citizens and visually explain what he/she’s doing and why. We could discuss that too.


  4. Amanda Watson Says:

    I’m definitely interested in talking about the larger role of visualization. And I think the “point of diminishing returns” question is a very good one to raise — if a tool is too complex to learn/use, if the user isn’t clear on what the point of making the timeline (or whatever) will be, the tool probably won’t appeal — but still, I think there needs to be room for exploration and experimentation. I like the idea of crowdsourcing the data, either in a class or among a group of interested scholars.

  5. briancroxall Says:

    Thanks all for the comments.

    @Eric: If I understand your questions about the backend, it was actually a very simple process. The data is all managed in a Google Docs spreadsheet. The students got very specific instructions for entering in the data that they had found, and it more or less ran itself. While some didn’t always get the data in the right way at first, it was very easy to find the errors and teach them how to correct their mistakes.

    The advantage for this approach is that GooDocs makes it very easy to add as many users as you want to a particular spreadsheet, leading to collaboration that isn’t possible in any of the other tools that I have looked at thus far. New updates to GooDocs mean that you can also open up a spreadsheet to anyone with the URL (they don’t even have to log in), so you could use a very open approach to crowdsourcing the material.

    Of course, giving students access to the spreadsheet means that they can break portions of the data–or worse, the header that makes everything run. But I’ve found that it’s not too difficult to find the problems. And I think it is very valuable to give students experience in working with a database–albeit a very simple one. If Manovich et al. are right about the importance of the database as a form for new media, then it behooves us to give our students in the humanities a chance to work with the form.

    Another approach to populating the data, however, is to use a Form to populate your GooDocs spreadsheet with data. This puts a wall between the students and the actual data structure, which might lead to less breakages. You can see an example of such a timeline (proof of concept only) at The form is at And I have blogged about it at

    @Frédéric: I’m glad that my tutorial was useful. And I think that you’re right about the usefulness of timelines (or visualization) in general for scholars is that it helps us present our material to a wider audience. In order to read my dissertation, for example, you need a fair amount of fairly specialized knowledge. The language that I’ve used is therefore a barrier to disseminating information. If we make things more visual using timelines or maps, suddenly the information can be apprehended in an easier way. People, in other words, tend to know how to read a map or a timeline. Of course, not all arguments can be reduced to such visuals, but trying to incorporate them and to think about *presentation* as part of our scholarship (form + content) is a way to help people see the continued relevance of humanities scholarship.

    @Amanda and (@Jeffrey): You’re right about the difficulty of the tools. It’s important that we DHers who want to help other “traditional” faculty get involved need to make sure that the tools are easy to use and that there is good documentation. But part of diminishing returns is also thinking about at which point it is no longer all that interesting to see yet another timeline assignment. Or another Prezi. When does the tool lose its “gee whiz?!” factor, and is this normalization of the tool/approach helpful for research and teaching or is it detrimental?

  6. THATCamp » Blog Archive Says:

    […] in spatial and temporal visualization.  I’m picking up here on ideas by Amanda and Brian, and also on a series of conversations I’ve been having this week at the annual Digital […]