User-Generated Content

Better Web Information Presentation: 10 Timeline Tools

In the quest to build comprehensive content for blogs and websites in general, I’ve been looking at ways that I can present mass amounts of information and still make it all accessible online for the average reader. One such way is to use a timeline tool, if your information/ data has a time component. This is something I mentioned in 28 Ways to Use WordPress Custom Fields, where one example mentioned SIMILE Timeline, an AJAX-y web tool for showing historical information/ temporal data.

This is not one of my WordPress Hacks examples. Timelines can be used on any website CMS or blog platform. A quick search on Google will show you that timeline tools are increasing in supply, though they are probably quite underused except by serious researchers.

Why Use Timeline Tools?

Here are some benefits of using web-based timeline tools to present temporal data:

  1. Visually accessible means of presenting historically-related information.
  2. Present multiple timelines/ event clusters simultaneously.
  3. Present text, links, images and digital media per event (depending on the tool used).
  4. User interactivity with events.

Uses of Timeline Tools

These are just a few generic and specific uses of timelines.

  1. Present historical events in bite-size chunks.
  2. Show the relationship between different but related timelines. E.g., religious events in Jewish and Christian history.
  3. Present e-lessons by visually suggesting a lesson sequence. (Lessons are linked to from event bubbles.)
  4. Use as a logbook for personal or project management, for both complete and incomplete tasks.
  5. Use as a logbook for freelancing, to gauge productivity.
  6. Document your life or that of someone you admire.

SIMILE Timeline documentation has a further list of  timeline examples.

Characteristics of Timeline Tools

Most timeline tools either display horizontally or have an option for vertical display. They also typically have two or more “bands” in the visualization. The first band is partitioned into years. The other are partitioned into smaller periods such as months, weeks or days. Some tools allow for a section of a band to be magnified out of proportion to the rest of the band, to emphasize important events.

10 Timeline Tools

If you’re interested in exploring timeline tools, here’s a short reference list (most are web-based). I’ve only explored the first two, so this is not an endorsement list. I’ve included 3rd-party references when possible.

  1. SIMILE Timeline. Examples are available in the documentation.
  2. Freshlabs’ WP plugin for SIMILE Timeline. This produces a timeline of your WordPress blog’s posts.
  3. iGoogle Timeline Gadget. This Gadget allows you to produce a SIMILE Timeline display within a Google Spreadsheet.
  4. Xtimeline. Build, browse, share timelines. [via ECIT Adventures]
  5. TimelineIt. Use it to create timelines. Note: no embedding/ publishing of timelines. [via ECIT Adventures]
  6. Timefo. Hosting for timelines. (Still in alpha mode.) [via ECIT Adventures]
  7. Read Write Think Timeline. Timeline builder designed for grade school/ high school students. [via Tech Savvy Educator]
  8. A Single Pixel TimeFlyer. A desktop timeline tool for Mac OS X 10.4/10.5.
  9. HEML. HEML, aka Historical Event Markup and Linking project allows you to coordinate and navigate historical material from the web.
  10. Long Now LongView. Long Now’s Timeline Tool, aka Longviewer, is a server-side tool for showing millenia and century information.

Downsides of Existing Timeline Tools

While I haven’t explored most of the tools above in detail, I have browsed them. They’re a relatively new breed of tool, and most are designed for web use. There are some common characteristics that might be a flaw for your project. Here’s a generic overview, which does not mean each point below applies to all timeline tools.

  1. You may have to write some HTML/ JavaScript code to produce functioning timelines. (For most of the tools above which are embeddable into web pages, you’ll have base code that you can start with.)
  2. You have to work with data formats (XML, JSON) that you may not be familiar with.
  3. May not be able to (easily) embed visual media beyond images (e.g., video, maps, etc.). This might require a fair bit of customization of the code.
  4. Not necessarily robust enough for a high-end production environment.
  5. Display of massive numbers of events may not necessarily be easy for users to consume. This might mean that you have to build layers of connected timelines. Start with an “overview” timeline of events, which in turn leads to detailed sub timelines partitioned by large periods of time (e.g., months, years, decades, centuries, millenia).
  6. Not necessarily easy to integrate with a blog platform. This might require serious customization.

Summary

Don’t let that list of downsides scare you. Timelines can be an extremely valuable and visually accessible way to present historical/ temporal information. In my next post, I’ll discuss a hack of SIMILE Timeline that, while built on a WordPress platform, can be integrated with any type of website/ blog.

Author: Raj Dash

3 thoughts on “Better Web Information Presentation: 10 Timeline Tools

  1. Chris: Love that Internet timelines gizmo. Kind of like a crossbreed of a timeline and a slideshow. That web browser one’s very interesting. I started clicking on the bubbles, though

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