A timeline is one of the most useful and versatile storytelling forms, suitable for everything from “tick tock” accounts that unfold over a short period of time to events that unfold over decades, centuries or millennia. But the tools available to journalists to create online, interactive timelines just haven’t been very good.

Generally, storytellers have had to choose between easy-to-use, not-very-attractive timeline generators requiring few technology skills (like TimeToast, Dipity and Vuvox), and more sophisticated tools (like ProPublica’s Timeline Setter) that require access to server-based technologies or some programming knowledge.

Not any more.

The Knight News Innovation Lab has just announced the release of a new, free and open-source timeline tool developed by Zach Wise, a multimedia journalist and faculty member at Northwestern University (where the Knight Lab is a joint program of the journalism and computer science programs). You can check out the tool at KnightLabTimeline.com.

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“The tools that already exist on the web are almost all either hard on the eyes or hard to use,” said Wise. “Timeline is an open-source, JavaScript and HTML/HTML5 based tool that creates elegant timelines.”

The first version of the timeline tool allows incorporation of tweets from Twitter (a la Storify) as well as media from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, Google Maps and SoundCloud. More media types will be supported in the future.

Here are some sample timelines created with the new tool:

Wise’s tool renders the timeline entirely in the browser, using JavaScript and CSS. It can pull content from a JSON feed or from content stored in a Google spreadsheet. The open-source code is available on GitHub.

Wise and the Knight Lab plan to continue developing the software — for instance, by creating a WordPress plugin to make timelines easier for WordPress-powered sites.

The making of Timeline

KnightLabTimeline illustrates the potential innovation opportunities that can emerge from a development laboratory at a university with strong connections to the media industry.

Wise, who joined Northwestern’s Medill School from the New York Times last year, was familiar with good timeline-building tools because the New York Times had developed its own — to create timelines like this one about the U.S. financial crisis. But when Wise wanted to assign students to create timelines in his digital-storytelling classes, he wasn’t happy with any of the free options available online.

He assigned his students to evaluate the existing tools and help him develop the requirements for a better timeline-building technology. The Knight Lab, launched last year with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, provided financial support and arranged for student labor to test, document and improve the pre-release versions of the software.

At KnightLabTimeline.com, you will find simple, clear instructions for creating a timeline. Nothing more than a basic understanding of HTML is needed.

To spur interest in the tool and learn how to make the timeline builder more usable for journalists and publishers, the Knight Lab is making an offer to Chicago area websites: You provide the story idea (and the media assets), and the Lab will provide students who can help you build one for your site. (Student support for this project is underwritten by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.)

Publishers of all sizes — ranging from small neighborhood sites to large media companies — are eligible for the assistance. For more information, contact the Lab at knightlab@northwestern.edu.