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Histropedia is a site that enables you to create timelines from Wikipedia entries.  According to the two founders of Histropedia (a very klunky name, which makes me think of histrionics), it is “a new type of website that will transform the way we visualise history”. Well, it certainly enables history timelines to be created instantly; whether that means it has transformed the way we visualise history is another matter.

The technology is quite simple. Timelines are created on the site not out of every dated reference in the Wikipedia text (this would be challenging indeed), but out of Wikipedia categories. These categories have to be added by the Wikipedia compilers when they write or edit an entry. A category in Wikipedia can be anything you like, such as “author” or “French poet”.  Histropedia takes every title from a category and creates a timeline from it. They claimed, when I visited the site, there were 300,000 ready-made timelines available, and I can believe it. As a trial, I loaded the Histropedia timeline for composers:

Histropedia composers

Functionality at this point is good: you can expand or compress your timeline using the mouse scroll button. You can share your timeline with others. You can compare timelines. You can jump to the relevant Wikipedia article.

In fact you may need to jump to the relevant Wikipedia article once you look at the contents of your colourful new timeline. On looking more closely at the composers list above, there are only 19 composers in this list. Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, fine, but what about Elton John, or Yoko Kanno? Fine, but these are rather different kinds of composers, and it seems a bit arbitrary to have just a couple of pop composers alongside an incomplete list of classical composers. The problem is not one created by the Histropedia founders, since all they do is convert the categories to something visual. No, the problem is with the Wikipedia editors who have complete freedom to create whatever categories they like.

To give another example, using another helpful feature of Histropedia, a drop-down index of all the available categories, such as Scottish painters, Scottish poets, Scottish dentists – what, Scottish dentists? I looked at this one again and drew the timeline. It contains six Scottish dentists:

Histropedia Scottish dentists example

Surely these aren’t all the Scottish dentists in Wikipedia? I searched for the phrase “scottish dentist” in Wikipedia and immediately found another Scottish dentist who has not been given a category of “Scottish dentist” and so is therefore missing from the timeline. Here is the problem with Histropedia: it is totally reliant on the quality of the subject tagging in Wikipedia, and any service that relies on Wikipedia metadata will face problems. I haven’t yet found a category in Wikipedia that is complete or reliable.

As an aside, I looked in Wikipedia for other categories of dentist: Scottish dentist, of course, South African dentists, Fijian dentists. A browse through Wikipedia categories for “dentists” reveals many lists:

WIkipedia categories July 2015

It would not take long to expose the missing articles from each of the categories above. All the category lists are based on the rather random knowledge or interest of the Wikipedia editors. There appear to be no Chinese dentists, for example, and some dentists that are British while others are simply English.

So in conclusion I wish Histropedia well. It is certainly a new way of visualizing history. But the history it is based on is random and incomplete.