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.)