Posted by Rob Knies

Project Greenwich logo

At 1 p.m. today, as it has almost every day for the past 179 years, the red time ball at the Royal Observatory Greenwich dropped from its Flamsteed House perch atop the prime meridian and adjacent to the River Thames. In the days before radio time signals, sailors were able to monitor the daily movement of the time ball to calibrate their chronometers and thereby obtain an accurate reckoning of their longitude while at sea.

One hundred seventy-nine years—that’s the course of two lengthy human lives. How the observatory must have changed over that period. How its surroundings must have been altered, rebuilt, torn down, rebuilt anew. How can a mere mortal even contemplate such an extended span of time?

That’s the crux of the research behind Project Greenwich, an effort by the Socio-Digital Systems (SDS) group at Microsoft Research Cambridge to enable users to create website timelines of any subject they fancy. Whether it’s the evolution of a historical event, observations about how a place has changed, or how your own life has developed, Project Greenwich offers utility to its users while enabling its researchers to learn how people think about time and how they approach the process of telling a story across time.

Richard Banks, SDS principal interaction designer, has spent significant time pondering such questions—and others, such as what it means to reflect on chronological content to think about the past. In particular, Project Greenwich, unlike time-stamped content, focuses on how crafting a timeline manually encourages reflection and learning and how the process can provide insights into relationships between the contained elements.

Banks, author of the 2011 book The future of looking back, has gained firsthand insights through his own experimentation. One of the project’s features is its ability to seek and add content from Wikipedia.
“The value of this feature really hit home to me when I was creating a timeline about my grandfather’s life,” he recalls. “Most of the content on his timeline is personal, but I was able to drop in these more authoritative items that pointed to content connected to my grandfather’s life as a pilot. I pointed to Wikipedia entries about the Royal Air Force, for example, and the Battle of Britain.

“I really like this idea of mixing personal and more contextual content to gain new insights into the content of a timeline.”

Project Greenwich is currently in an “open-alpha” version, and while it is not an official Microsoft product, it offers capabilities that many will find fascinating. You can upload your own photos, deploy Wikipedia entries, juxtapose or compare your timelines with others you have created, and share your timelines with your family and friends.

Interestingly, you sign into Project Greenwich using your Facebook credentials. But don’t think that this is a mere clone of that service’s Timeline feature.

“That is focused on the owner of a particular Facebook profile,” Banks explains, “and the content they create as a record of their time spent on the social network. It shows a person’s status updates and posted photos as part of a chronology. You could say that the Timeline is a byproduct of the activities that person does on Facebook.

“Project Greenwich, on the other hand, is a tool that lets you create timeline visualizations to present and better understand any subject that you like. It could be a personal history, even your own personal history, but it might equally be the history of your child or even something more research-oriented, such as a timeline of all the presidents of the United States.”

During a previous, “closed-beta” version of the project, Banks and teammates Siân Lindley, Tim Regan, and Abigail Sellen spent much of this summer doing a study of participants, watching them use the site.
“They were really drawn to making personal histories,” Lindley says, “and for many of them, a big motivation is telling their own story, curated by them, as a record of their own life. We also learned a lot about how they went about the process of making their timelines, by creating their own structure encompassing key events and then filling in the gaps.

“We’re interested in using our findings to better understand how a timeline tool could be designed to support users in creating timelines for particular audiences, or even how they could display what users feel to be key and making this more salient in the visualization. We’re currently writing up what we’ve learned from that study, and we hope to publish our results soon.”