Tutorial: Building a TimeMap Visualization

Good Afternoon everybody, my name is Bernard Moore. I’m a graduate student in Dr. Peter Alegi’s Digital South(ern) African History course here at Michigan State University.

I’m here to teach you about a tool you can use in digital historical research. It’s a software called TimeMapper from Open Knowledge Foundation Labs, and it takes data that you input into Excel spreadsheets (via Google Sheets) and it turns it into plots on a digital map accompanied by an interactive timeline. It addresses change over time, as well as certain spatial aspects. This makes it accompany a digital project really well; it’s a great visualization. I’m going to teach you all how to make one and how to use it. This text will accompany the “Camtasia” video above.

The first thing you have to do is create an account on Google Drive, because it accesses the spreadsheet data from there. Then, you must make an account on Twitter, because the TimeMapper uses the Twitter login information. Once you have made your accounts, click the “Create a new Timeline or TimeMap” button on the home page.

This is the form where you input your title, URL, and other information. Before we do that, however, click the link that reads: “Click here to use a pre-prepared example.” This really speeds a lot of things up, because it takes you to a spreadsheet with the framework already built. The template is a “medieval philosophers” TimeMap, so you can ditch all the data, but be sure to keep the first row (the one that’s shaded black).

Take that first row and copy it into your own black Google Spreadsheet. That will provide the base for your data entry. The first column reads “title”: this is the name of each individual point on the TimeMap. You then have two columns for start and end dates, one for description, and another for if you want to put an image in the TimeMap. You then have a column for “Place” and another for “location.” The former is the name of where you’re point will land; the latter is the exact GPS coordinates.

You can obtain the GPS coordinates from Google Maps. If you put a query into the maps, you can right click and choose “what’s here?” to get the coordinates. Alternatively, you can pull them from the URL after you’ve done your search. Take those coordinates and put them into the spreadsheet.

Once you’ve done that, be sure you’ve given the dates properly. Be consistent with either US or non-US formats, also be sure to write the year out fully (1957, not ’57). If you don’t enter the dates correctly, the whole thing gets screwed up.

When your data is entered, click “File” then “Publish to the Web” in the menu of the Google Sheets interface. If you don’t make your data public, the TimeMapper software cannot access the data, and the map won’t be populated.

Move to the TimeMapper interface, and click to make a new TimeMap. In section two, there is a button you can push to “select from your Google Drive.” This will allow you to directly link to the Google Sheets you just made public. Give your TimeMap a name and a URL, and make sure you select the correct date format. Check things over and click “Publish.”

You can be as complex or as simple as you want with your TimeMap. In the video, I briefly show some of the ones I’ve built (Here, and Here); take a look to get an idea. Finally, you can either embed the iframe code to your Website, or you can just screenshot the map and hyperlink in to the TimeMapper URL.

TimeMapper is a very useful tool if your researching things dealing with movement. Migration histories, Slave Trade, Shipping, etc. With the right data, you can piece together a very interesting visualization that reinforces your arguments further. I heavily recommend playing around with it.


Bernie Moore