UC Berkeley-conceived online tool finalist for SXSW award

Chris Engberg/Courtesy
Pictured above is everyone involved on ChronoZoom from the group (Big History Labs). Left to right: Chris Engberg, Professor Walter Alvarez, Roland Saekow, and Professor David Shimabukuro.

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ChronoZoom, a UC Berkeley-conceived online tool that organizes historical information, is presenting at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, this week as a finalist for the Interactive Educational Resource Award.

Roland Saekow, ChronoZoom’s founder and a UC Berkeley researcher, will be presenting the project through a timeline of recent advancements in AIDS research. ChronoZoom was named a finalist along with five others in the same award category in January. Winners will be announced at an award ceremony on March 12.

ChronoZoom is a zoomable timeline for so-called “big history” — the overarching term for all of history, both humanistic and scientific, from the cosmos to the present. It addresses problems in information organization by using Microsoft Deep Zoom technology to arrange time along zoom factors, creating a timeline along a z-axis.

“It’s like Google Earth, but for time,” said Walter Alvarez,  a professor in the campus Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

ChronoZoom was conceived when Saekow, then a UC Berkeley undergraduate, was taking Alvarez’s class on big history, which covered methods of thinking about deep time.

After a lecture on the challenges of visualizing the timescales of big history, Saekow approached the professor and proposed that computer zoom technology could solve the problem.

Saekow and Alvarez decided to work on the project together and publicly premiered the idea at a faculty research meeting in 2010, Alvarez said.

“We often refer to ChronoZoom as Roland’s class project that got out of hand,” Alvarez said.

The beta version of ChronoZoom is an open source software and is freely available online. Official version 1.0 is set for release at the end of June, said Chris Engberg, an assistant researcher to Alvarez.

With the release of the new version, the ChronoZoom team is working to allow anyone to add data themselves, in accordance with the open source nature of the technology.

Also in the works is a filtering method to allow users to search and access information across many databases, such as Wikipedia and the Library of Congress, and use that content to build a timeline of their own, Engberg said.

“We want to empower the user to choose the information they want to see — whether it be open source information or a curated view for a history class,” Engberg said.

Engberg said that because anyone would be able to add data, ChronoZoom will be transparent with source information — each piece of data will indicate from where it was drawn.

“With Wikipedia, you don’t know who the sources are,” said Alvarez. “When you come to ChronoZoom, we want to have it be able to tell if information has been carefully curated by experts.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope that ChronoZoom will be a valuable resource for conceptualizing big history. Engberg said that the idea of the project is to tie human-level events to Earth events to the cosmos and beyond.

“Big history is about synthesizing everything” said Alvarez. “We think that ChronoZoom might be the first big thing for this synthesizing science.”

The project received financial and engineering resources from Microsoft Research. A development team from Moscow State University is also contributing to the project.

Contact Christine Tyler at [email protected].