Review of TimeMapper

Author: 

Michelle Schwartz

Tool: 

TimeMapper is an open-source map and timeline tool built by Open Knowledge Foundation Labs. TimeMapper has utilized components from several existing open-source map and timeline tools to create a simplified web interface for building an embeddable, shareable online map and timeline. Users of TimeLineJS or Leaflet maps will find the clean, simple look of TimeMapper very familiar.

Open Knowledge Labs is a collaborative community of “civic hackers, data wranglers and ordinary citizens” interested in open data and open source software. Their use of open-source components in TimeMapper speaks to that interest. They have also made the source code for TimeMapper available on GitHub for advanced users interested in building on the project.

TimeMapper is aimed at beginner users interested in visualizing temporal and spatial data. It works by taking the data from a Google spreadsheet and using it to populate a map and timeline. This map and timeline is then available on the TimeMapper website as a shareable link. An embed code is also provided for users who would like to display their map and timeline on their own website or blog.

Setting up a TimeMapper map and timeline is a simple process. First you create a Google spreadsheet. TimeMapper even has a sample template with recommended fields and instructions for formatting the information. Events can represent a discrete point in time, or a span with a beginning and end. It is possible to include a decent amount of basic information for each event, using fields that can contain a description, a link to a web page, an embedded photo or video, descriptive tags, a human readable place name, a machine readable location (either GeoJSON or longitude and latitude), and a citation for the event information.

The second step is to publish your Google Sheet to the web and then copy the “Share” link to into TimeMapper. TimeMapper provides minimal customizable settings – users can set a title for their map and a slug for their timeline’s URL. Users can also choose to generate a map and timeline, or just a map or just a timeline, and set the timeline to start from the first event, the last event, or the current date.

Once those selections have been made, it’s just a matter of clicking publish. Everything about TimeMapper is designed to simplify the process of creating a map and timeline. Users can create a map anonymously or sign in via their Twitter account and store all of the maps they’ve created under their username. The spreadsheet template even includes a formula that will automatically generate geographic coordinates based on the plain text place name entered into the “place name” field. If spreadsheet dates are formatted in US or UK notation, rather than ISO, a simple radio button can tell TimeMapper the format being used.

The only feature that the TimeMapper team hasn’t yet simplified is in adding polygons (for instance, the boundary of a country) to the map. Users who want to add polygons rather than points will have to write Google Sheets formulas to build their own GeoJSON boundaries. TimeMapper has done its best to link to helpful instructions for this capability, but nevertheless polygons currently remain in the domain of advanced users.

The limitations of TimeMapper are in its reliance on Google Sheets, and a lack of customization options. However, in some ways these are also its strength. If you happen to have a set of data that already conforms somewhat to the format of the TimeMapper template, or you have a small data set that you don’t mind inputting or converting by hand, then TimeMapper will be the simplest and fastest way to set up a working map and timeline, for free, and relying mostly on open source code.

If you are balking at the idea of a large scale reformatting of your existing data, your data contains events that aren’t suited to TimeMapper’s format (for example, uncertainty in dates), you don’t want your visualization to rely on a public Google Sheet, you ache to customize the look and feel of your map and timeline, or you want to install your map and timeline on your own website, then TimeMapper may not be for you. Instead you may wish to use a more customizable tool like the timemap Javascript library.