‘There’s a time traveller in each of us’
The digital revolution brings us all kinds of cool tools that make it easier to study, teach and present history. Interactive timelines are one of my favourites. Compared to their analogue versions, the benefits are clear: you can zoom in and out on time, minimize and maximize text boxes, add pictures and video, cooperate, share, etc. We tested and compared ten online timeline applications and were amazed at all the different features and, moreover, at the impact those have on their usability for your historical project. A hanby comparison matrix accompanies this review.
If it would be our intention to make a ranking of the tested timelines, Tiki Toki would be at the top. The responsive design – that you can modify – is impressive for sure, but not the only selling point. For each event or period you can add multiple images, video or links and the editor allows html-text. For now, you can’t add media through upload from your computer but only by using remote connections. An interesting feature is the categorization you can add to your events. You can define different colours for political, cultural, social and economic events for example, and present them in category bands. This thematic structure adds a crucial dimension for historians. Sadly, it’s not (yet?) possible to filter on these categories. Nor is it possible to search the text of the events. Off course you can embed the timeline, but you can’t incorporate it in social media. But for the Tiki Toki timeline that’s not really a drawback. It keeps the design tight and doesn’t divert your audience. Too bad the name is a bit stupid…
Timeglider is one of the only timelines that does allow searching text en themes. You can visualize the weight of events by placing them higher or lower, smaller or bigger on the timeline: an interesting but time-consuming feature. The design of Timeglider is simple and non-adjustable and you can only add one image per event. The event popup doesn’t automatically close when you open the next item and all those open windows rapidly cloud your vision on the timeline. Another drawback is that Timeglider is only available in English. A plus is that it’s possible, as with the Tiki Toki timeline, to import and export data using CSV-files.
The SIMILE project of MIT develops open source tools to process and visualize all kinds of digital data. One of their widgets you can integrate in your own website and/or pair with other applications, is the SIMILE-timeline. It’s beyond questioning that you can make ingenious, complicated and intelligent timelines thanks to SIMILE (Geodia, viewshare). But contrary to the other applications in our list, you can’t just sign in and start building your timeline. You need to do some implementation work. That can be as easy as using a Google spreadsheet but also very complicated using JSON.
It is beyond questioning that we can make ingenious, complicated and intelligent timelines thanks to SIMILE.
An interesting version of the SIMILE-timeline is the one where the user can combine and mark different search results. The SIMILE-design is very simple and only adjustable using code. This can be an advantage if you use your timeline as a tool for research or collection management: the design doesn’t divert and you don’t loose time making it pretty.
A new open source tool we are keeping an eye on is Timeline JS of Knight News Innovation Lab. In principle it works the same as the SIMILE-timeline: you import data from a spreadsheet (or JSON) or other data sources (twitter, YouTube, GoogleMaps, Vimeo). But it looks somewhat better than the SIMILE-timeline and on the website you find a handy embed generator: you only have to insert the url of the spreadsheet and you’ll get the embed code. Timeline JS offers a showcase of timelines made by its users. Even though Timeline JS claims to be able to produce sophisticated timelines, there aren’t any in its gallery.
Several timeline applications try to assemble a searchable collection of timelines and bring together a timeline-community. Timerime is one of them and can be interesting if you want to make and show a whole series of timelines. It’s the only application that doesn’t show the event information in a pop-up window but as an html page below the timeline. That opens a lot of opportunities for text and media use per item. Timerime offers all kinds of packages to businesses and schools. It’s even possible to integrate the timeline in the electronic learning environment of your school or university. Important drawback is that you can’t add events that happened Before Christ. That’s something Timetoast can’t do either. Together with xtimeline that’s the least interesting timeline application: content wise very elementary, confusing in its use and – above all – maddening slow.
And then there are the timelines that focus on the import and presentation of social media. Dipity imports data using search results in GoogleNews, Youtube, Flickr, Twitter, RSS, blogs, Last FM, Delicious, etc. This means that you can use the timeline to monitor news and information on the web. Or use it to collect and present the (real and virtual) activities of your organisation. We think Dipity can be a useful tool to control your own information flows but also to offer as a visualization tool to your colleagues, students or members who don’t (want to) manage the information themselves.
a handy application to manage your information flows
Memolane doesn’t go that far. This application only allows you to visualize your personal history. Its baseline is: ‘Rediscover your greatest memories’. And that’s all it will do. In our opinion the future of Memolane looks somewhat insecure since facebook implemented its timeline.
Beedocs: a one trick pony
For mac-adepts this lists adds BeeDocs as a last timeline application. The 3D-timeline you can export with the app or software of BeeDocs, are guarantied welcomed with awe from your audience. You can export the timeline as video – with or without alpha-canal – or as sequences to import in Keynote (apple’s powerpoint) so you can integrate the timeline in your presentations. But then we’ve said it all. Beedocs timelines are only interesting to present time. They’re not interactive, the online publication is limited and the software suffers from bugs.
- Our timeline comparison matrix gives an overview of the features of the timelines. (pdf/jpg)
- Before you choose your application it’s crucial to figure out what the timeline needs to be able to do for your history project. Do you want to document, reconstruct, present, analyse or study history? What works in an exhibition, isn’t necessary the best solution for the classroom.
- The balance between features, complexity, design and usability is very delicate and often a personal matter.
- A nice design can be stimulating and has its pedagogical value. But it can also divert.
- Don’t be afraid to pay for a Pro Account. The costs are more or less the same as the price of a book. The extra features are worth it.
At the Institute for Public History currently runs an ‘Innovative Education Project’ concerning digital timelines as a learning tool. If you know other online timeline applications, please e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org so we can add them to the chart.