We envision a best-case scenario for the use of timelines where researchers and learners can re-configure, compare, cannibalize, and share timelines to suit specific topics or questions. The standard and prototype we create will demonstrate the utility of this vision.
The problem: A widely-agreed-upon standard for tagging rich but relatively unstructured online information (e.g. Wikipedia, articles, manuscripts, media archives, online course content) for use in rich timeline displays does not yet exist. Related “calendar” standards (e.g. hCalendar, h-event) and language-specific standards (e.g. for Python, d3, Wikidata) do exist. Many of these standards are richly descriptive and flexible, but they are largely not interoperable–and they are not being used in mainstream education-oriented or research- oriented timeline software today. The lack of community-driven agreement on a common standard for describing and tagging the kinds of information that timeline tools need to import and then display is presently inhibiting researchers’ and learners’ abilities to understand and compare temporal sequences in pursuits ranging from Big History to Epidemiology to Criminology to Cell Biology. Arguably, the lack of agreement upon, or use of, interoperable standards goes a long way toward explaining why no excellent, customizable, tool for displaying online timelines exists.
To solve this problem, we have created a standard for timeline-related information. Our process included researching existing standards and conversion options between them, deciding which pieces of existing standards to adopt, and then defining the minimum useful standard set as a list of semantic tags and formats for basic concepts such as “start time.”
Why is this important? Arranging information chronologically, using timelines, is an intuitive way to understand a history events, and to organize research material. The move from analog to digital timelines was a major advance, because it allowed for hyperlinking of information displayed on timelines. Beyond hyperlinking, online timelines in principle enable comparison of multiple related customized timelines simultaneously, and options for sharing, crowdsourcing and/or partially automating, the creation of new timelines. Steps toward creating tools that allow comparison, sharing, and automation have already been taken by a few timeline tool developers. So far, though, efforts are uncoordinated and solutions are not interoperable, due in part to a lack of standards that would facilitate easy import and data exchange, and due to an apparent lack of communication amongst timeline software developers. Put most simply, it’s as if developers started to create browser-like software (think Hypercard) without having fully agreed on using the HTML standard first. Widespread agreement on the HTML standard made the internet much more useful.
Our long-term vision is that the establishment of the standards and accompanying prototype will do for temporal information what Mediawiki did for general knowledge, i.e. enable the creation of new, constantly-improving, crowdsourced resources. Imagine the standard and tool we create here evolving to allow the creation of specialized, comparable, customizable, timelines of world history, of the history of structures in the Universe, of all the articles in the world’s newspapers, of the development of animal species, or… [your idea here]. That’s, ultimately, what we have in mind, but we have started small, with an active, engaged, consortium, a flexible standard, and a highly-functional prototype.