In 1998, Al Gore offered a vision of a “Digital Earth”, a virtual globe that would “put the full range of data about our planet and our history at our fingertips.” This vision inspired the development of Google Earth, which offered a revolutionary view of our planet: zoom out and see the world as a whole; zoom in and see your own house! Similar systems such as Google Maps are now fundamental to the ‘geospatial revolution’.

But there was a second component to the Digital Earth vision that had largely been forgotten:

“She is not limited to moving through space, but can also travel through time. After taking a virtual field-trip to Paris to visit the Louvre, she moves backward in time to learn about French history, perusing digitized maps overlaid on the surface of the Digital Earth, newsreel footage, oral history, newspapers and other primary sources. … The time-line, which stretches off in the distance, can be set for days, years, centuries, or even geological epochs, for those occasions when she wants to learn more about dinosaurs.”

I first discovered the speech above in 2008, after I had launched Sahul Time a year earlier, showing Australia’s archaeological and historical timescales. I wasn’t surprised to know that the idea I had in my head had been articulated ten years before, albeit in broad-brush terms.

Since then I have set myself the task of fleshing out that vision and creating prototypes that show how that result would look and feel. I have talked with archaeologists, historians, geologists, palaeontologists, train-buffs, genealogists, environmental scientists, meteorologists, palaeoceanographers, curators, archivists, flood modellers, historical economists, true-crime writers, biographers. Often these needs turn out to be surprisingly similar.

From what I have learned, I have developed prototypes that may serve multiple needs across these various disciplines. To populate these models I have sometimes struggled to piece together the necessary  data from primary sources, only to finally discover all the data I need was already nicely tabulated in some obscure publication. Our knowledge of the past is fragmented and unconnected, and every researcher who wants to answer those same questions for their particular location of interest ends up going through the same process I have struggled with all these years.

Visualising historical knowledge is not simple – it’s nuanced and full of pitfalls. Taking a satellite photograph of the world today is totally different from piecing together the evidence to reconstruct the past, and there are holes in our knowledge that will probably never be filled in. There are multiple perspectives on how past events can be viewed, classified and represented.

A visualisation will never replace narratives of personal experience or discussions of cause-and-effect. What it can offer is a framework of historical events as a context into which to place such narratives and debates.

Visualisation can bridge a long-running break-down in communication. Alas, too many historians, archaeologists and geologists are only interested in communicating to (and arguing with) other historians, archaeologists or geologists.  The resultant knowledge becomes mired in discipline-specific jargon, and inaccessible even to those in closely allied disciplines.

And ultimately, the purpose of all this expensive research should be to communicate our amazing assemblage of knowledge about the past to the general public, who after all, bankroll most of the research that generated it.  In my personal experience, most laypeople fall at the first hurdle: simply understanding how the basic events are laid out in space and time. Without that framework of understanding, historical dates become meaningless, and their knowledge of the past becomes fragmentary.

Basically: I believe we can assemble the 99% of stuff that we pretty-much agree on, and present that to the 99% of people who can’t make sense of it. And we can point arrows from that model to the 1%  of stuff we still need to work out. Hopefully then we can get the funding to continue that great tradition of research.

In Al Gore’s 1998 Digital Earth speech, Al Gore described how the incredible resource of Landsat data has essentially been wasted:

The Landsat satellite is capable of taking a complete photograph of the entire planet every two weeks, and it’s been collecting data for more than 20 years. In spite of the great need for that information, the vast majority of those images have never fired a single neuron in a single human brain. Instead, they are stored in electronic silos of data.

Google Earth transformed these fragmentary satellite images into an interactive virtual model that every member of the public can explore. More recently, Google Earth Engine has assembled the legacy Landsat data into an invaluable record of environmental change.

However, our vast collective knowledge of the world beyond this timescale still remains fragmentary: multitudes of research articles in paper journals or online PDFs. Occasionally researchers get together to assemble a project that collates all the data relevant to their discipline, and a visualisation system specific to those needs (good examples: GPlates, EarthViewer).

Many disciplines share the same ultimate need: visualising and analysing stuff through space and time. A single, advanced, flexible system for doing this job could serve as a foundation for assimilating knowledge across a range of knowledge domains. Such a system might act as a bridge between disparate disciplines, and as a port of reference for the general public.

Ultimately, the aim of the Temporal Earth project is summed up at the end of Al Gore’s 1998 speech:

In the long run, we should seek to put the full range of data about our planet and our history at our fingertips.