A Brief Chronology
of the Chronoscope Hamburg

Matthias Müller-Prove, working paper 7/11/17

The Chronoscope Hamburg is a time machine to explore the historical topology and development of the city of Hamburg. It offers seven historical maps – dating from 1590 to 1937 – in a geo web application. It was necessary to align the maps to display them with high precision on top of today’s map. The web app provides controls to zoom into the details on street and canal level, and to compare the maps across centuries.

Keywords: eculture, open data, digital humanities, cartography, interaction design, user experience

Coding Da Vinci

The Chronoscope is one of the projects that were developed during the cultural hackathon Coding Da Vinci Nord. One of the participating institutions was the Hamburg State and University Library Carl von Ossietzky.

The first step to dive into such a project is a content audit. What's there? How many? How to access the data and meta data? Are there any obvious or faint patterns or structures?

The Hamburg Library has scanned 241 maps and made them public under Creative Commons license. Here they are sorted by year.

Screenshot from Apple Aperture

All maps plotted by year in LibreOffice

After spending some time browsing the data, the ideas start to pop up just by themselves.

Chronoscope Log

From Proof-of-Concept to Chronoscope Hamburg 1.1

Early prototypes became operational on October 5, 2016. They are based on google maps and eventually display four maps for the years 1694, 1803, 1867, and 1905. The maps have been geo-referenced in a manual process with a photo editing tool and several semi-transparent layers.

It is a deliberate design discission that the Chronoscope works as a personal research medium. There are neither guided tours nor info boxes that distract the user from her own personal journey through space and time. It is one of Chronoscope’s key properties to support a self-paced discovery of streets and locations that resonate with the user’s curiosity and perspectives.



>> Try Chronoscope 1 now

Chronoscope 1.2

Marine Lives Project is an Independent project that has transcribed more than 10.000 pages of the High Court of Admiralty in London of the 1650s. In specific, 60 residents of Hamburg have been identified by name, address and occupation. As an experimental feature, the Chronoscope shows the streets were they have lived.

>> All residents can be displayed with Chronoscope 1.2

Chronoscope 2

The problems of the Chronoscope version 1 have been addressed by replacing google maps with mapbox GL JS. The main new features are:

Other additional features would have been possible with google maps as well:

The load times have been reduced by scaling down the maps to 4096 pixels width at maximum. This was also a constraint posed by WebGL for iOS. The use of tile servers for the maps has been evaluated; but performance and display quality are not convincing (at the moment).

>> Try Chronoscope 2 now

>> Check the Operations Guide to learn to fly through space and time

Software- and Interaction Design

Along the concept and development process usability and interaction design have been a major objective. Each interactive element went through several iterations, and it was evaluated if it provides sufficient value and delight to the user. The qualities are:

high precision
Several 100s of control points have been specified to stretch and bend the 7 maps until they match the actual topology.
high performance
Background map and satellite images are provided by mapbox tiles server.
Historical maps with 2MB each and sufficient quality level are cached by the browser
Navigation constraints to North Germany, i.e. it is possible to zoom out to see the North and East Sea for the regional context; but the user never gets lost in the middle of nowhere.
no known severe bugs
clean layout and user interface
Two groups of controls are offered on the top and right border of the window or screen.
The first groups is for selecting the year and the transparency settings.
The second group is for controlling the view, i.e. zoom, north, geo-location, and satellite background
An additional welcome page provides some background info on the maps.
Emotional anchor elements like Hein & Fiete and Victoria
responsive design
The first control group is moved to the bottom edge of the screen in order to prevent covering the screen with the hand.
discoverable and predictable additional features
Mouse and keyboard control to move, zoom, rotate, tilt, and select year and transparency
A time pendulum to compare past and present with ease
An individual home position for each map
A chrono cursor can be set on any location. The view parameters can be shared by a secret Victoria panel.

contextual and innovative gesture controls

The compass is only active on mobile devices a few moments after the user has geo-located herself.
Long touch and tilting the mobile device is introduced to change the angle of the map pane.

According to Bill Verplank each user interface is either plan or map. A plan UI provides instructions to accomplish a certain task, while a map user interface shows the entire landscape (metaphor!) and leaves it up to the user to form a mental model and make her steps. Another example: for desktop applications, the menu structure is a map user interface that presents all possible commands – on the other hand a wizard is a plan UI because the user is guided to take the commands in a predefined order. Both flavours of UI are valid approaches for certain scenarios. But they provoke a different kind of user experience.

The Chronoscope has a map user interface – metaphor and visual design are hard to distinguish. But just imagine the historical maps combined with a story-telling approach. Then the user is entertained with historical facts and gossip; but she is less engaged to control the parameters of the time machine.

Speaking with Marshall McLuhan, the Chronoscope is a cold medium – cold like in cool jazz. The user has to complement and complete the experience with her own perspective and emotions.

Another dichotomy is lean back vs. lean forward. You lean back to watch TV, a hot medium. You lean forward to read a book, a cold medium. A cold medium is generally more immersive than a hot medium because the degree of active participation is higher.

By design the Chronoscope should be a cold medium that is engaging and offers a lean forward experience. The user constructs the story by using the time machine to see how her neighborhood has changed over time. This personal relationship between the user and the tool is the precious quality of the design.

A Time-Traveler’s Society

A sketch with out a social life is not a sketch – Bill Buxton

An app with out a social life is not an app. With out users or a community it can be considered a nice prototype, at most. Therefore a hashtag chronohh was established right from the beginning to share updates on the development. In March 2017 a facebook page was launched; and since mid of April 2017 the Chronoscope is accompanied by a a mini-blog on tumblr Chrono Hamburg and it’s alter ego ChronoHH on twitter. However, the objectives and goals have to be adjusted for a successful social media strategy. While the Chonoscope itself offers a self paced exploration, the social media channels have to continuously offer fresh content. This is done by sharing and retweeting content of other eCulture or historical Hamburg sites [cf. Chrono Hamburg Archive]; and it requires an active community managements. After a month twitter has gained 100 followers, while facebook falls behind with 50 Likes after the first 2 months of being.

An open source, open data, or openGLAM repository with out a social life is just dead bits and bytes. – mprove

What the hack? – Some Reflective Thoughts

What the heck are reasons to participate in a hackathon; in specific in Coding Da Vinci Nord? Spending hours and days for no incentive? – stimulating the intrinsic motivation is key. Here is a subjective list:




online community accross teams was not existing
recommendation: set up the communicaiton channels before the event and promote them right from the beginning
surprising announcement to freeze and submit the final project a week before the closing ceremony
recommendation: clear and early announcement of hackathon’s timeline
missing recognition for participating teams that were not lucky to be awarded
recommendation: prepare a symbolic present to thank everybody
the GLAMs were not prepared to take action on feedback and scientific results. (in other words, crowdsourcing was not expected) e.g.:
the photo documentation of the event does not capture the spirit of the events
recommendation: hire a professional photographer
public awareness and press coverage was hardly existing


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PSoemers: One example of the great value of OpenGLAM - and a very fit-for-purpose at sharecarex in Hamburg! See you soon!

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