Behind the Data: ChronoZoom

Behind the Data: ChronoZoom

Our latest challenge tasks you with visualizing time to make ChronoZoom — an online, zoomable timeline that aims to make time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid — an even better educational tool. We've asked Roland Saekow, ChronoZoom's Community Project Leader, to offer some additional context for the challenge and suggest some avenues for research and visualization. 


Describe the data sets. What information do they each contain?

The World War I dataset was created by a team at the University of North Carolina as part of a sample curriculum for ChronoZoom to be used at the middle and high school level. It contains timelines and exhibits (events) that help students explore the factors that led to the start of World War I. Each event contains artifacts (media URLs on the web) with descriptions and bibliographic information.

The larger dataset that loads when you visit was developed by students at UC Berkeley. When Professor Walter Alvarez and I developed the original idea for ChronoZoom in 2009, it came out of a need in explaining the vastness of time in a Big History course. The large dataset contains timelines and events covering the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity. Big History aims to tell the story of our past in an interdisciplinary way, showing how nearly everything is related to each other.

What are stories or surprises you or the community have discovered through visualizing this data?

Many people know the sequence of key events, but they do not know how big or small the gaps between these events are. With ChronoZoom, everything is plotted linearly. When people see how long ago the Pyramids were constructed relative to the time of Rome or the history of United States, they can begin to truly appreciate the scale of history. And then when they zoom out of humanity, the see all of humanity shrink away into less than one pixel on the screen as they view humanity in context with pre-history. The same thing happens when you zoom from pre-history to the scale of Earth history which is told in terms of billions of years. ChronoZoom lets people explore time at all scales, whether it is a few days, hundreds of years or millions and billion years. The big jump between Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity often surprise people.

How is ChronoZoom already being used as an educational tool?

One of the most exciting and largest uses of ChronoZoom to date is with the University of Alberta. There are over 20,000 students enrolled in their Dino 101 online course. The team at Alberta took the open source ChronoZoom code and adapted it (along with modifications to the UI and new features) to teach the history of dinosaurs and geologic time. You can view the timeline here

What recommendations do you have for those working with this data?

There are many stories that can be told using these datasets. We have developed tours in the Big History dataset as an example of the kinds of stories that can be told. Find a story you like and focus on bringing it to life, to help drive home points for students new to the topic, or make it fun and easy to explore the data so students can come up with their own theories and stories.

Where are you hoping to go with this data in the future? How might you add or modify to it?

We hope to build a platform where students, teachers and researchers can input their own data, and to grow it with communities. It would also be great to pull in data from existing sources, such as Wikipedia.

Apart from the challenge, what are other ways that you see data visualization contributing to or integrating with ChronoZoom?

As a research tool, we think ChronoZoom would be ideal for comparing multiple time series charts and graphs. Today we have a very simple line plot tool that allows you to load CSV files into the canvas. This enables climate data to be compared with timelines and events in history. We would like to support more graph types and file formats. Live streaming data would be really cool.

Participate in our Visualizing Time challenge by Wednesday, January 8, 2014 for a chance at $17,000 in prizes, including a trip to Moscow to meet with a member of the ChronoZoom Research and Design team. Submit any questions here. Start visualizing! 

*Open only to individuals 18+ who are employed at an accredited educations institution that grants college/university degrees and do not make procurement decisions in their employment, or individuals 18+ who are employed at a private sector company and do not engage in procurement or regulatory activities in their employment. Individuals may enter individually or in teams of up to five (5). Private sector companies that do not engage in procurement or regulatory activities with any public sector agency may also enter. Challenge ends 1/08/2014. See full Official Rules.


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cecilia's picture

Thumbs up for him! I greatly appreciate everything he had for this. - Reba Rambo-McGuire

Alexandra Pappas's picture

@DannyCrews - Thanks! They are working now. Let us know if you have further problems.

DannyCrews's picture

It appears as if the buttons for entering the VT challenge are broken (I've tried on multiple browsers).