Calendars and timelines

Time visualisation tools such as calendars and timelines can be used to track changes, document histories and processes or analyse routines. 

Why?  Time is an important dimension of most issues: looking at how something came about, learning from experience, or anticipating what might happen.  Many problems are experienced in a very immediate way - but responding to them effectively requires a long-term perspective, recognising the factors that led to the situation in order to ensure sustainable solutions.  Visualising these in the form of a calendar or timeline can be very effective. 

Examination of routine uses of time can clearly show differences in individuals' patterns of work or behaviour, encouraging shared analysis, debate and in many cases assisting planning for change.

When?  A time dimension is useful in analysis of nearly any issue or situation, and can be introduced at any point.

How?  Three main graphics can be used to add a time dimension to analysis.  Calendars can be used to map and analyse seasonal patterns and variations, for example looking at workload during different times of year or price fluctuations, while timelines are an effective way of tracking changes in relation to a particular issue over time and predicting future events on the basis of past experience.  Both bring out powerfully associations between cause and effect, and can be used to improve planning and preparedness, looking ahead and determining, for example, small steps that, over a period of time, might add up to a large change. 

In contrast to the longer view of timelines, daily charts can help participants to focus on the micro use of time, allowing for shared analysis of patterns in work-load or behaviour.  Through highlighting differences, or convergences, in routine activities and duties, the charts are useful for encouraging debate of division of labour or opportunities for collaboration.  This type of individual graphic is particularly powerful when examining gender issues and power relations. 

As with any visualisation exercise, calendars and timelines should be used to deepen analysis of an issue arising from group discussion.  Common themes include agriculture, health, food security, income and gender relations, although a long-term perspective of any situation can be useful.  Depending on the issue or situation to be analysed, different units of time will be appropriate, whether hours, days, months, years or decades.  In some cases, this will relate to a specific period, and in others it will be general: months of the year or hours of the day.    

Once the time units have been determined, a basic calendar or timeline can be drawn up, with locally appropriate symbols used for the different units of time.  This can either be done individually or as a group.  Participants then place symbols or words representing relevant events in the appropriate place on the graphic.  If done as a group, the decisions of which events are relevant, and when they occur, may in itself be cause for revealing debate.  Group analysis and discussion of the resulting calendar can form the basis for drawing up strategies for coping with, or preventing, regularly occurring problems.

As a group builds up a series of calendars and timelines these can be compared to enable participants to observe interrelationships between apparently distinct events, such as changes in the local economy and patterns of disease.

Examples from practice:

Health CalendarHealth calendars were used in Nepal to provoke discussion of the causes of common illnesses on a seasonal basis.  Through completion of the calendar, considerable discussion was generated on why the illnesses were common, whether they changed from year to year, the causes which were or weren't seasonal, how the illnesses were spread, how they could be prevented or reduced and how medicines or funerals could be better afforded or planned for. 

In Uganda hunger and abundance calendars were used to plot the availability of food and income through the year, to determine the times of year when there were serious shortages and the times of abundance.  The reasons for shortage were explored and discussion focused on survival strategies and ideas for improving them.  Ideas for action included introducing new crops, improving storage, bulk purchasing, cooperative selling, irrigation, income-generation projects etc.

Calendars and timelines have also been used in the following ways:

  • Gender workload calendars in Uganda
  • Cooperative history timelines in Honduras
  • Village history timelines in Bangladesh
  • Daily routines of boys and girls of different castes in India.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.