Tree of Time: ChronoZoom

I have sacrificed parts of my Christmas break to develop something for Visualizing.org’s Visualizing Time challenge: A Hierarchical Time Tree visualisation which offers new insights into the dataset that powers the original ChronoZoom interface.

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 15.51.59

In 2009, Walter Alvarez was looking for a way to communicate the enormous time frames that make up the history of the universe and conceived the idea of ChronoZoom, which was released as an early prototype in 2010. Since then, the visualisation evolved quite a bit and by now contains a rich collection of data. What I only found out recently, is that all of this data is also accessible separate from the visualisation through a dedicated API.

Recently, the makers of ChronoZoom launched a contest in collaboration with the platform Visualizing.org in order to, I’d guess, promote the use of this API and at the same time tackle some of the problems they encountered.
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Behind the Scenes: ChronoZoom

In this post I will try to reproduce the steps that lead to my visualisation of ChronoZoom timelines. I tried to save the important mile stones as individual files and you can find them at the beginning of this post. It is fairly technical and in a way written more as a record for myself than for a general audience. So bear with me, should you decide to read this and feel free to ask questions in the comment section.



v0.1, v0.2, v0.3, v0.4, v0.5, v0.6, v0.7, v0.8, v0.9, v0.10, v0.11, v0.12, v0.13, v0.14, v0.15, v0.16, v0.17, v0.18, v0.19, v0.20, v0.21, v0.22, v0.23, v0.24, v0.25, v0.26, v0.27, v0.28, v0.29, v0.30, v0.31, v0.32, v1.0b, Final


Visualizing.org has partnered up with the people behind ChronoZoom. ChronoZoom is both a dataset containing curated timelines of the history of the cosmos and the world, as well as visual interface for exploring those timelines. Much in the same tradition as some of the earliest timelines, which aimed to map all of time – from the Creation to the last Judgement – ChronoZoom contains events since the Big Bang up to our current times. If you somehow haven’t come across it yet, you should give it a try here.
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Scrolling Through Dead Presidents

Ravi Parikh’s interactive timeline maps the lives of US presidents and reveals the overlaps in their lifespans.

I have just come across this visual timeline by Ravi Parikh. It maps the lifespans of every US president and totals the number of living future, current and past presidents per year in a plot. It is a continuation of a visualisation he did the day before, which only included current and past presidents in any one year.

From his description it seems that the first visualisation was drawn up to answer one specific question: what is the maximum amount of (current and past) presidents alive at any point in history. In case you’re curious, it’s 6 (1861, 1993 and 2001-2003).

The second visualisation was encouraged by commentators and, I’d guess, without a specific question in mind. On the one hand it offers a more complete picture, because it includes the entire lives of presidents and not just the periods between their election and death. On the other hand, the lack of a question makes room for discovery.

Ravi notes some observations, such as which presidents have been alive during which wars. It would be interesting to see those wars and also other major events somehow highlighted in the timeline. The timeline also reveals which presidents coexisted and therefore knew of each other and might even had conversed. For example, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were both alive at the same time. Although it is unlikely that 8 year old Ronald had a chance to chat with Roosevelt before he died in 1919.

I would also be interested in the reason for the peak in numbers of presidents alive during the 1840s. Is it because presidential periods were shorter? Or is it just due to the fact that we can not know how many potential presidents are alive in current and more recent times because simply we don’t know who will become president in future decades?

It would be useful if we could play with the lifespans of presidents more freely, for example to have the beginnings of all the presidential periods aligned or to keep some ‘landmark presidents’ always visible.

Currently, the passed away presidents scroll out of view when the cursor is moved in the overview plot. Incidentally it was this mode of navigation by linking a line plot to a timeline view that first attracted my attention. It’s not novel, but it works very well with both the visuals and the kind of data. I immediately started playing with it, scrolling back and forth and brushing through the data. It’s fun, as long as you’re not put off by the slightly morbid character of how the presidents all die the further you scroll.

Exploring Digital Collections

A growing number of museums and other holders of cultural datasets are making their collections accessible to the public via online interfaces. Not always does accessible also mean approachable. Often, the interfaces are about as attractive as Excel sheets and as much fun to use. What we need is interfaces that support exploration and discoveries in digitised cultural data.

Most of the cultural institutions who have their collections online, provide a basic search field, sometimes with options to further specify and filter results. Some even fully subscribe to the Open data philosophy and expose their entire collection via a SPARQL interface. Both interfaces however do not function if a user does not formulate a specific question. They immediately ask the user “what are you looking for?” without first presenting a glimpse of what can actually be found. All too often, a user is not specifically looking for a certain thing, but simply wants to look around.

I would like to look at examples, where this behaviour is supported. Where collections are exposed via rich interactive interfaces, that encourage to browse, learn and discover things. Interfaces that provide one with questions, to which one likes to find answers — as opposed to search fields that ask for questions where one inherently knows the answer already.

Originally I intended to write a blog post on some of such examples I have collected. However, it would not really do them justice to summarise them in one single post, or it would just be a really long article that no one would read anyway. So instead, I will write one article per example, in which I will provide an in depth description and impression. I will update this post and the articles that follow as I go along and maybe discover things that are worth to compare among the examples already presented.

So here we go.
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Churchill War Room Timeline

Down in the Churchill War Rooms, part of the Imperial War Museum in London, a fifteen metre long interactive timeline invites the visitor to explore the life of Winston Churchill.

An array of ceiling mounted projectors casts the pastel coloured visuals on a banquet-like table. The timeline is organised in tabs, which are marked with a year number and contain a list of the most important events. More eventful years, such as the period of World War II, are distributed across several tabs and marked with a range of months in addition to the year.

When one enters the room, the earliest years of Churchill’s life are arranged on the right side of the table, from the back of the room towards the front, while the later years are organised on the left side, from the front to the back. No connection seems to be intended between the years that are opposite to each other on the table. The colours of the boxes as well as the half circles that appear on their top edges on the other hand seem to follow some coding scheme.

To unfold the individual tabs, the user moves a yellow pointer to the desired year (portion) by sliding on a plastic touchpad below the projection. After a short delay, the tab opens and reveals another set of tabs corresponding to the selected months or days of the chosen time period. Again the pointer can be used to choose one of the sub tabs, which reveals — after a short delay — an artefact or an excerpt of Churchill’s biography.

Several touch pads are mounted on the table, each giving access to a portion of the timeline. It is not possible to interact with the entire timeline at once, nor is it possible to have several tabs open. Despite the sleek appearence and the smoothly animated transitions, exploring the timeline is a cumbersome undertaking. Moving the pointer from one year to another often requires stroking the strip several time, and there is no other option to confirm the selection despite waiting for a few seconds and hoping for something to happen.

When first trying out the Churchill War Room timeline, one tends to expect it to react directly on touch, when in fact it is controlled by the touch strip below it.

In a sense, these shortcomings do not really matter, as most visitors (from observation) do not seem to understand how to interact with the timeline. One reason is, that the control strips are barely visible below the bright visualisation.

The main problem however is not a fault of the design installation, but of the anticipations of the visitors. Primed by the technological developments of the past years, almost everyone (including the author) expects the timeline to react on touch. These expectations are assured, even after some visitors discovered the touch strip and managed to move the yellow arrow. After moving the pointer, nothing happens at first. Therefore, the user decides to touch the projection, at which point the tab opens — not triggered by the touch, but by the implemented delay. Yet for the user, it was the touch that caused it, which leads him to touch one of the sub tabs. Again, the tab opens. Although not necessarily the one that has been touched, because it was actually triggered by the delay and the current position of the yellow arrow.

All of the visitors around at the time have been observed to be interacting in the way described. Some of them did show apparent confusion, or seemed to be aware of the fact that they were using the timeline incorrectly. To be fair, if the installation would be developed again, the designers would most probably implement the sort of interactions expected by the users today. Still, there’s no guarantee that tomorrow’s users won’t expect a completely different kind of interactions, maybe similar to the gestural interfaces developed by John Underkoffler and popularised by Spielberg’s Minority Report.