Timeline tools for news reporting have room for improvements

In my search for timeline tools for use in a multimedia journalism class, I tested two solutions: (a) Dipity, a free online service; and (b) a Facebook-style timeline javascript template. I tried to create a timeline that plots the key events that led to the June 28 Supreme Court decision on “Obamacare,” and in doing so, both tools have their pros and cons.

Dipity – a decent end result with frustrating working experience

Dipity is a free digital timeline website and below is a brief description:

Organize the web’s content by date and time. Users can create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive, visually engaging timelines that integrate video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps.

A “very” big frustration with this service is the slow response and occasional crash of the site. I cannot see the pattern how it happens, but now and then, when you make an edit, it takes a very, very long time to respond and at times, the whole site just freezes up. I have had this frustrating experience working on a mac using both Chrome and Firefox.

When it does work, it works well: I like the easy-to-use editing interface where one can quickly assemble materials from local computers and on the web. And I was able to put together a simple timeline showing the key dates of the “Obamacare” initiative. Caution: if the timeline below takes a long time to show up, it again is due to the response of the Dipity site, as the timeline is hosted by Dipity.

One other issue that I have with Dipity, which prompted me to look for alternatives, is that the timeline is horizontal and you need to “drag” and click your way through the timeline. I wanted to have a timeline that looks and works like the Facebook timeline: vertical and scrolls down.

A vertical timeline template that requires time and coding knowledge

I found a free javascript template developed by Balance Media; it can create a vertical timeline which looks and works like the Facebook timeline. In comparison with Dipity, working with this template is very time-consuming and requires some good coding knowledge: you need to create a Google spreadsheet, manually fill in the all information following a strict format, create separate HTML pages, edit the codes in the HTML page and the javascripts, upload the HTML package to a web server, and embed the timeline page to a blog post. And, in its current form, the template cannot display videos.

Below is the same Obamacare timeline recreated using this template. Note how it looks like a Facebook timeline: contents on both sides of the spine, and goes down with mouse scrolls. Note: move your mouse over the timeline and scroll down to view the contents.

Error: Embedded data could not be displayed.

One issue with this template: browser compatibility – some browsers may not display the timeline properly. It displays correctly with Chrome and Firefox on my mac, but may have trouble with other browsers.

Mac Safari seems to have problem with the javascript and cannot correctly display the timeline. I haven’t tested other browsers, but if on your computer, the vertical timeline doesn’t look like the one in the image on the left, then it is a browser issue.

Summary and conclusion

For practical use in the classroom, I’ll opt for Dipity, which seems to be the only free, web-based timeline tool and doesn’t require any coding knowledge of its users. Other than the frustrating slow response of the site, this service can also use some improvements. For one thing, in comparison with vertical timelines or the Facebook timeline, Dipity’s timeline interface is not making best use of the (limited) space: there’s too much empty (gray) area. Not to mention you need to drag and click to view the timeline, whereas you only need to scroll the mouse with a vertical timeline.

So, my hope is to have a Dipity-style service that provides a better user experience, and creates VERTICAL timelines.

A final note is that the Obamacare timelines in this post are adapted from a story by USA Today, which, by the way, is also a timeline story.
Related posts:

About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
This entry was posted in Data journalism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Timeline tools for news reporting have room for improvements

Leave a Reply