The Eternal Timeline – Visualizing Unstructured Information

Is history boring? Sometimes. But it really shouldn’t be. There is too much to learn and there is an abundance of stories that are too fascinating to be ignored. Making these stories visible in an engaging manner is a challenge. And it is easy to get it wrong. Just think back to school: chances are you probably had a history teacher that managed to bore you to tears (Bueller, Bueller, Bueller).

Well, two of my friends got it right. Think about how hard it is to properly visualize structured information in some cases. But Bernhard Lermann and Jens Semjan decided to go for a tougher challenge: Visualize history in the form of long timelines. Some of you might remember that I wrote about their fun and extremely cool exhibit called ‘The Eternal Timeline’. Given the success of the exhibit, Jens and Bernhard just posted a short video. Sit back and enjoy the eternal timeline show!


Visualization of unstructured information

The other day, I attended a great exhibit that was put together by my friend Bernhard Lermann (@lermann) and his companion Jens Semjan. Their Munich exhibit called “The Eternal Timeline¬†Show” is highly unusual, very entertaining and informative. Apart from educating me on a few things, the exhibit certainly triggered a lot of thinking around data visualization.


Eternal Timelines

What is so special about this exhibit and what is the relationship to visualization? Very simple. Lermann & Semjan decided to visualize history. We have all read history books. Many of them are quite boring and lengthy. The two artists decided to take a different approach by creating visual timelines around certain topics. In the exhibit you can find a timeline for Apple, for example. Another timeline focuses on the history of networking. All this is displayed on long sheets of endless paper. The spectators are able to walk the timelines up and down. Apart from some classic history themes (epidemics, revolution, etc..) there are also some interesting newer topics such as tweets that led up to the revolution Egypt a few weeks ago.


The timelines represent an excellent example for visualizing unstructured information. What I found is that many people walked the timelines up and down. And many people showed a reaction: They stopped, they thought, they discussed. It was quite interesting to watch. But not surprising. We all know that pictures say more than words. Being able to physically walk the timelines spectators are getting engaged with history. They are also able to relate events (just move over to the left…). Last but not least, I found that I had absorbed a lot of knowledge within a very short period of time. Visuals do that for us. They help us make connections.


You Tube was here! The history of networking

Visuals are extremely helpful. They help us identify trends, see patterns and they sometimes connect with us on an emotional level. There is plenty of room for us to leverage this powerful tool in business. Let’s start visualizing our monthly variance reports. Let’s visualize the behavior of our customers. We can all save a lot of time and we can have more fun at work. There is ample of opportunity for us to visualize our data and information. This exhibit is a fine example of that. It inspired me and many other people. If you happen to be in Munich, make sure to stop by the exhibit or get in touch with the artists. Also, make sure to watch David McCandless’ presentation about data visualization at TED.