Tags: dataviz

4

sparkline

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

Sonic sparklines

I’ve seen some lovely examples of the Web Audio API recently.

At the Material conference, Halldór Eldjárn demoed his Poco Apollo project. It generates music on the fly in the browser to match a random image from NASA’s Apollo archive on Flickr. Brian Eno, eat your heart out!

At Codebar Brighton a little while back, local developer Luke Twyman demoed some of his audio-visual work, including the gorgeous Solarbeat—an audio orrery.

The latest issue of the Clearleft newsletter has some links on sound design in interfaces:

I saw Ruth give a fantastic talk on the Web Audio API at CSS Day this year. It had just the right mixture of code and inspiration. I decided there and then that I’d have to find some opportunity to play around with web audio.

As ever, my own website is the perfect playground. I added an audio Easter egg to adactio.com a while back, and so far, no one has noticed. That’s good. It’s a very, very silly use of sound.

In her talk, Ruth emphasised that the Web Audio API is basically just about dealing with numbers. Lots of the examples of nice usage are the audio equivalent of data visualisation. Data sonification, if you will.

I’ve got little bits of dataviz on my website: sparklines. Each one is a self-contained SVG file. I added a script element to the SVG with a little bit of JavaScript that converts numbers into sound (I kind of wish that the script were scoped to the containing SVG but that’s not the way JavaScript in SVG works—it’s no different to putting a script element directly in the body). Clicking on the sparkline triggers the sound-playing function.

It sounds terrible. It’s like a theremin with hiccups.

Still, I kind of like it. I mean, I wish it sounded nicer (and I’m open to suggestions on how to achieve that—feel free to fork the code), but there’s something endearing about hearing a month’s worth of activity turned into a wobbling wave of sound. And it’s kind of fun to hear how a particular tag is used more frequently over time.

Anyway, it’s just a silly little thing, but anywhere you spot a sparkline on my site, you can tap it to hear it translated into sound.

Month maps

One of the topics I enjoy discussing at Indie Web Camps is how we can use design to display activity over time on personal websites. That’s how I ended up with sparklines on my site—it was the a direct result of a discussion at Indie Web Camp Nuremberg a year ago:

During the discussion at Indie Web Camp, we started looking at how silos design their profile pages to see what we could learn from them. Looking at my Twitter profile, my Instagram profile, my Untappd profile, or just about any other profile, it’s a mixture of bio and stream, with the addition of stats showing activity on the site—signs of life.

Perhaps the most interesting visual example of my activity over time is on my Github profile. Halfway down the page there’s a calendar heatmap that uses colour to indicate the amount of activity. What I find interesting is that it’s using two axes of time over a year: days of the month across the X axis and days of the week down the Y axis.

I wanted to try something similar, but showing activity by time of day down the Y axis. A month of activity feels like the right range to display, so I set about adding a calendar heatmap to monthly archives. I already had the data I needed—timestamps of posts. That’s what I was already using to display sparklines. I wrote some code to loop over those timestamps and organise them by day and by hour. Then I spit out a table with days for the columns and clumps of hours for the rows.

Calendar heatmap on Dribbble

I’m using colour (well, different shades of grey) to indicate the relative amounts of activity, but I decided to use size as well. So it’s also a bubble chart.

It doesn’t work very elegantly on small screens: the table is clipped horizontally and can be swiped left and right. Ideally the visualisation itself would change to accommodate smaller screens.

Still, I kind of like the end result. Here’s last month’s activity on my site. Here’s the same time period ten years ago. I’ve also added month heatmaps to the monthly archives for my journal, links, and notes. They’re kind of like an expanded view of the sparklines that are shown with each month.

From one year ago, here’s the daily distribution of

And then here’s the the daily distribution of everything in that month all together.

I realise that the data being displayed is probably only of interest to me, but then, that’s one of the perks of having your own website—you can do whatever you feel like.

Canvas sparklines

I like sparklines a lot. Tufte describes a sparkline as:

…a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.

Four years ago, I added sparklines to Huffduffer using Google’s chart API. That API comes in two flavours: a JavaScript API for client-side creation of graphs, and image charts for server-side rendering of charts as PNGs.

The image API is really useful: there’s no reliance on JavaScript, it works in every browser capable of displaying images, and it’s really flexible and customisable. Therefore it is, of course, being deprecated.

The death warrant for Google image charts sets the execution date for 2015. Time to start looking for an alternative.

I couldn’t find a direct equivalent to the functionality that Google provides i.e. generating the images dynamically on the server. There are, however, plenty of client-side alternatives, many of them using canvas.

Most of the implementations I found were a little heavy-handed for my taste: they either required jQuery or Processing or both. I just wanted a quick little script for generating sparklines from a dataset of numbers. So I wrote my own.

I’ve put my code up on Github as Canvas Sparkline.

Here’s the JavaScript. You create a canvas element with the dimensions you want for the sparkline, then pass the ID of that element (along with your dataset) into the sparkline function:

sparkline ('canvasID', [12, 18, 13, 12, 11, 15, 17, 20, 15, 12, 8, 7, 9, 11], true);

(that final Boolean value at the end just indicates whether you want a red dot at the end of the sparkline).

The script takes care of normalising the values, so it doesn’t matter how many numbers are in the dataset or whether the range of the numbers is in the tens, hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands.

There’s plenty of room for improvement:

  • The colour of the sparkline is hardcoded (50% transparent black) but it could be passed in as a value.
  • All the values should probably be passed in as an array of options rather than individual parameters.

Feel free to fork, adapt, and improve.

The sparklines are working quite nicely, but I can’t help but feel that this isn’t the right tool for the job. Ideally, I’d like to keep using a server-side solution like Google’s image charts. But if I am going to use a client-side solution, I’m not sure that canvas is the right element. This should really be SVG: canvas is great for dynamic images and animations that need to update quite quickly, but sparklines are generally pretty static. If anyone fancies making a lightweight SVG solution for sparklines, that would be lovely.

In the meantime, you can see Canvas Sparkline in action on the member profiles at The Session, like here, here, here, or here.

Update: Ask and thou shalt receive. Check out this fantastic lightweight SVG solution from Stuart—bloody brilliant!