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Visualizing the History of Everything with ChronoZoom

By Dennis Anderson

We sat down with the team responsible for Microsoft Research’s ChronoZoom Project, including Principal Investigator Dr. Walter Alvarez of the University of California Berkeley; Development Lead Dr. Sergey Berezin of Moscow State University; collaborator Dr. Craig Benjamin, who is the President World History Association, Treasurer of the International Big History Association and Professor of History at Grand Valley State University; and Project Lead from Microsoft Research, Rane Johnson.

 

What is the problem ChronoZoom is trying to solve? 

Walter Alvarez: “Big History” is a new and emerging field that attempts to unify the past— all of the past—from the beginning of time, through the four major historic regimes of cosmic, earth, life, and human history, up to the present. It offers a broad understanding of how the past has unfolded, and the opportunity to think about what unifying characteristics there may be in all kinds of history. It presents a motivation for bridging the intellectual chasm between humanities and sciences.  

Because the field of Big History studies all 13.7 billion years from the Big Bang to the present, a tool to aid the comprehension of time relationships between events, trends and themes is necessary. ChronoZoom seeks to solve this problem visually.

As the number of electronic resources and specialized online collections containing articles, images, video, sound, and other multimedia grow at an increasingly faster rate, there becomes a need to organize, catalog, and unify similar resources. ChronoZoom is a step toward enabling users to browse knowledge, rather than searching, by linking relevant online resources to fixed time scales in an organized and logical manner.

ChronoZoom is designed for several different audiences, including students, teachers, and researchers. As a research tool, ChronoZoom may one day help to facilitate the process or sharing, exploring and analyzing data across many different fields.

 

There are timeline tools today, what makes ChronoZoom different?

WA: Many timelines today that deal with large spans of time such as the ones we cover in Big History predominately use non-linear scales that severely distort time.  For example, log scales introduce such severe distortion that they probably cause more confusion than understanding.

With ChronoZoom’s immense zoom capability, we can display all of time on a linear scale, free of distortion. Students can easily zoom from billions of years ago to the present across a linear timeline, sacrificing neither precision nor the number of events that can be displayed

The method in which ChronoZoom is being developed is also different. Undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs from UC Berkeley and Moscow State University are working together with Microsoft Research and the Outercurve Foundation to build it. With input from the community, we hope ChronoZoom becomes a tool that many different types of people will like and use.

Sergey Berezin:  We were excited to be part of the ChronoZoom project. My students are gaining real-world experience with the latest cutting edge development technologies such as Windows SQL Azure, HTML5, JSON, JQuery, C#, and .NET. My students are creating a Wweb service that has never been attempted before that we hope one day be used by millions of people around the world.  ChronoZoom takes on very difficult development problems such as:

  • How do you write an algorithm that takes in account there is no such thing as a 0 year (BC/BCE) and leap years?
  •  How do you logically organize several different types of content (audio, video, txt, pdfs, images) and make them easy to access through the use of zoom technology?
  • How do you efficiently display and render timeline elements using HTML5 Web standards without sacrificing a smooth browsing experience?
  • How do you ensure a great experience on multiple devices, operating systems and browsers such as, Macs, PCs, iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone and Android?

My students will graduate with knowledge no other computer science student has been able to achieve.  My students are learning agile development and testing concepts that are not typically taught in a computer science curriculum. This is very exciting to me.  

Rane Johnson:  Unlike other tools there is not one today that is supported by such a vast number of discipline experts.  ChronoZoom has two major teams lead by outstanding universities:

  • Content team—Compromised of researchers with significant digital content and subject matter expertise to populate ChronoZoom, led by University of California at Berkeley and the Information School at the University of Washington
  • Development team—A community of computer scientists pushing the boundaries of Web technologies and building the necessary features to bring ChronoZoom to life, led by Moscow State University in Russia

ChronoZoom is also an open source project. The source code is freely available for anyone to download and experiment with, visit Codeplex to download it today. We hope universities will work together to make ChronoZoom even better. 

We currently envision layers of ChronoZoom: Layer One is highly curated with an editorial board. Layer Two where anyone can create their own timelines and stories for personal use or classroom use. Layer Three, my personal canvas where researchers can work in collaboration to build out their research stories with their data investigations until they are ready to share with the world. 

 

How will ChronoZoom advance education when it comes to students, educators and researchers?

RJ:  We have learned over time that history repeats itself. We hope that ChronoZoom can help instructors and students to better understand the cause and effect relationships between various different disciplines.  With ChronoZoom, you can zoom in and out, and visually look for trends, patterns, and significant events from our past. We hope this will encourage researchers to collaborate more and ask different questions for greater innovations.  As a dynamic and interactive tool, we also hope it will engage students and excite them to learn more in both the humanities and sciences.  

Craig Benjamin:  We are excited at the potential for ChronoZoom to drive interest in Big History all around the world.  As part of the International Big History Association (IBHA) Executive Committee, we promote the study and teaching of the history of cosmos, earth, life, and humanity.  The International Big History Association was established in August 2010, at the Geological Observatory at Coldigioco in Italy, which is run by Alessandro Montanari and Paula Martello.  We see the potential that ChronoZoom could become the online journal for Big History and become a tool for all Big History Historians to exchange and share their findings.  I am also excited at the potential for ChronoZoom to work with the Gates’ Big History Project that bring Big History Curriculum to ninth grade classes around the country.  I used ChronoZoom in my course last spring and look forward to it helping students better understand the history of cosmos, earth, life, and humanity in a technology tool that students will enjoy and make learning fun. We are excited to have a session with the top Big History Professors around the world at the IBHA Conference in August to help build out the most important events through history that should be represented in ChronoZoom. 

WA:  ChronoZoom will help researchers in various disciplines by allowing them to make all sorts of comparisons. Imagine you are studying the Nile River. As a historian you might think about the evolution of ancient Egyptian society and know when certain key events happen when, while other events might be a mystery such as when the Nile River existed and when it dried up. A historian using ChronoZoom could access data from Sapropels, dark-colored sediments rich in organic matter that can be used as a proxy for when the Nile flowed and when it did not.

ChronoZoom will have tools to put all this information together on a single timeline for easy comparison. Today, ChronoZoom cannot display plots, curves, and phylogenetic trees, but we are working to add these featureS soon. It is also exciting to think about ChronoZoom as new kind of online journal. Instead of needing to wait months or years for a print publication to be released, new insights could be published directly inside of ChronoZoom without such delays.

 

How can I get my hands on ChronoZoom and be part of the development of the tool? 

RJ: ChronoZoom beta is available online. We are looking for research institutions, and organizations with rich digital content to help ChronoZoom come alive. Please contact me at ranej@microsoft.com to become a content partner.  We are also looking for computer science departments around the world to help us with cutting-edge development opportunities to build out all the needed feature sets, investigate research opportunities in data visualization, user experience, and maintain the service. 

Lastly, we need feedback to make ChronoZoom great for everyone. Please use it in your classroom and then take the survey to let us know what we need to do better.  The survey can be found by clicking on “Take a Survey” link toward the bottom of ChronoZoom’s homepage.

 

For more information, here is a list of resources:

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