Speculative Timelines

We are building on Drucker and Nowviskie’s Temporal Modeling project to create interactive timelines for humanities researchers. We hope to support visualizations of subjectivity and conflicting witnesses.

Some excellent digital tools exist for associating historical events with a visual timeline. These include the Simile project from MIT, ThemeRiver™ from Pacific Northwest Laboratories, and SpiraClock from L’Ecole des Mines de Nantes. However, over the past few years, in various discussions with literary and historical scholars of the existing timeline applications, we were struck by the realization that these tools don’t really support two kinds of understanding of history that are very common among scholars. That is, the tools visually argue that what is important is the placement of a fixed historical event, at a moment or over a duration, on the appropriate location in time. One thing this model leaves out is the significance of this event in the mind of the person at a historical moment – that the event will often colour the person’s memory of the past and influence speculation about the future. In addition, the model does not readily accommodate conflicting accounts of events, where activities have been located at different points in the timeline, or in a different order – there is little affordance, in effect, for multiple witnesses. The Temporal Modelling Project (Drucker and Nowviskie 2003) provides an intellectual basis for this proposed design and prototyping work.

Researchers: Stan Ruecker (PI), Geoffrey Rockwell, Susan Brown, Megan Meredith-Lobay, Johanna Drucker, Bethany Nowviskie, Carlos Fiorentino, Wayne Graham, Jim Allman, and Omar Rodriguez

Research Goals

1) To identify visual approaches to simultaneously representing conflicting reports of events on a historical timeline.

2) To explore means of visually expressing the changing nature of memory and speculation, as well as the degrees of confidence that can be associated with each conception of the past and future at a given point in time.

3) To produce and test a prototype system for scholars working with subject matter involving conflicting witnesses or changes in perception over time using our speculative timelining prototype.

Research Questions

1)   What visualization techniques can be identified that allow us to model conflicting reports of historical events, as well as changes in memory or speculation over time?

2)   What subset of these visual techniques are appropriate for use by scholars in literary and historical research?

3)   How are people’s current approaches to using digital timelines limited by the available interface approaches, and can alternative visualization alternatives reduce such limits?

4)   How should visualization strategies for conflicting witnesses and changes in memory or speculation be adapted depending on the nature of the data being presented?


  • Review and analysis of current research literature on visual timelines.
  • Creation of a prototype that visually displays conflicting information, as well as changing memory about the past and speculation about future events. The prototype will draw for content on a set of case studies of appropriate data.
  • Qualitative studies combining interviews, screen captures, and a thinkaloud protocol of 10-15 participants who describe their thoughts and activities as they carry out visual browsing tasks using a speculative timeline with one or more of the case studies.
  • Iterative improvement of the speculative timeline visualization prototype based on the results of the previous steps.