ProPublica’s TimelineSetter: A Wonky Yet Powerful Tool

Timelines are an effective storytelling tool that can display information that occurs over time in an attractive, easy to follow format.

While there are many tools available to do the trick, one stands out for its power, and that’s ProPublica’s open source TimelineSetter.

The introduction to TimelineSetter reads like this: “TimelineSetter creates beautiful timelines.”

That’s an understatement.

The timelines created by TimelineSetter are sleek, can incorporate rich media like Google Maps and YouTube videos and can be easily modified.

But there’s a catch: TimelineSetter is not for those who don’t take to code easily. It requires use of a shell, the modifications of CSV files and (most importantly) lots of trial and error. But believe me, the results are definitely worth it.

The program uses Ruby to generate the static files, so Ruby is required on the computer used to create the timeline (as opposed to the Web server displaying the timeline). If you’re using a Mac, the Mac OS X Developer Tools are also required.

Content for the timeline is placed in a structured CSV file, which can be created by Microsoft Excel.

A simple shell command points TimelineSetter to the CSV file, and then it dumps out the HTML file, as well as one folder of CSS and one folder of Javascript.

Since ProPublica open sourced TimelineSetter, a number of notable news organizations have used it. Talking Points Memo used it to document the Wisconsin union protests earlier this year, and the Los Angeles Times used it as part of their Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of corruption in Bell, Calif.