Seeing the Story: New Software Helps Journalists Create Timelines

One of the biggest challenges facing investigative reporters is making sense of large volumes of information collected from a variety of sources over many months, or sometimes even years. A new tool developed by Sarah Cohen, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, aims to make that process easier and faster. Since it was made available in late July, the free, open source software – TimeFlow – has been downloaded more than 500 times.

Information entered into TimeFlow can be sorted and viewed multiple ways - as color-coded timelines, bar graphs, lists, calendars or tables. When viewed in the timeline mode, events can be collapsed into years, or expanded to show each hour in a day.

Sarah Cohen with studentsAs newsrooms continue to downsize, “There are fewer boots on the ground, so reporters need tools like this,” Cohen said. “The filtering and color make it much easier to see patterns, and to see where the holes might be in your reporting.”

To develop the software, Cohen, former database editor at the Washington Post and Knight Professor of the Practice at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, teamed up with “the premiere visualization people in the country.” Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenburg, pioneers at IBM’s Visual Communications Lab, cranked out TimeFlow just before joining Google to lead its “Big Picture” data visualization group. The DeWitt Wallace Center is focusing much of its work on harnessing technology to preserve the watchdog function of media.

Cohen emphasizes that TimeFlow was designed to be easy for non-geeks. It’s intended to help reporters organize large quantities of notes, so frequently the inputs are words, not just numbers. Users can either import existing datasets or enter data directly into the program as it is gathered.

“A lot of people are interested in it, not just journalists – lawyers, fiction writers, museum curators.” Cohen said. “It’s useful to anyone handling a longterm project where you are trying to piece together information from a lot of different sources.”

One of the datasets used as an example in the software was drawn from the Washington Post’s research on President Obama’s first 100 days in office. Journalists tracked the president’s daily activities and “used a tool that was supposed to be for timelines, but it was too difficult and limited for our needs,” Cohen said.

The data in the TimeFlow example is color-coded and includes, for each event, information such as type of event, policy subject and location. A quick sort shows that Obama made 14 speeches and half of them included comments on the economy. Another dataset allows visual analysis of 14,763 campaign contributions. The size of a dot appearing on a calendar indicates themagnitude of the gift, while colors depict which industry sector donated.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, which provides workshops for reporters, included TimeFlow in several recent “boot camps,” intensive weeklong programs for reporters to learn new tools and skills. Feedback from users has already led to improvements in TimeFlow, and that process will continue, Cohen said.

The software is available online at