August 26, 2010

As a reporter at The Washington Post, Sarah Cohen was frequently frustrated with the dearth of tools for working with chronological data. Now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, Cohen looks for ways to help journalists be more efficient.

TimeFlow, a free and open-source data analysis tool, is the first version (still alpha) of a project that she has been working on to make it easier for reporters to look at data over periods of time. Unlike some of the alternatives, such as the SIMILE Timeline and Dipity, TimeFlow is not built to present the data online.

Cohen worked with programmers Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg (who previously worked on Many Eyes and are now at Google) to describe what features the tool would need.

“I felt really strongly about the ability to look at data on a calendar or time line,” Cohen said in a phone interview. She also thought it was important for the tool to give journalists the ability to filter data, zoom in and out of it, and edit it in place without having to import or export it from somewhere else.

TimeFlow was developed as a desktop application instead of a Web app so that it could easily handle large data sets. Also, in consideration of security measures, which prevent many reporters from installing software onto their work computers, the tool was designed to run off a thumb drive.

There are a few key ways journalists can use TimeFlow:

  • To keep notes on long-running stories — such as court cases, bankruptcies or police investigations — that require journalists to keep track of ongoing developments.
  • To compile material in a way that might make it easier to look at the relationship between various events and stories.
  • To organize information for narratives and the reconstruction of events.

TimeFlow handles chronological data in a pretty unique way. You can use approximate dates, create entries to span a set of dates, or enter events with a start date alone. Data fields also include URL links to source materials and text descriptions.

The data is viewable in various formats: a calendar, a time line, a bar chart, a list or a table. It can be filtered in any view — by using tags and data fields, by searching for keywords, or by using regular expressions. It can also be edited within each view.

You can add data by copying and pasting from an Excel spreadsheet or an HTML table, or you can add it by importing a CSV or TSV file. There are currently no export functions.

Once you’ve downloaded TimeFlow, you’ll be able to start playing right away with some of the example data sets.

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