The Government Versus Apple

I’ve come across timeline.js before, and decided to  give it a go for this assignment. I chose to pick up the threads of the battle between the FBI, the US DOJ, Apple, and others in the tech industry over the unlocking of the San Bernardino shooting’s suspects’ iPhone. There have been innumerable explainers penned on this subject, some better than others, but considering the mountain of legal paper that’s built up, I thought it might be interesting and worthwhile to go for a chronological layout of what’s been said and done. Also, the government announced yesterday that it decrypted the iPhone, so this seemed like a great and timely subject

General Observations

This was not the most straightforward application. The spreadsheet-based interface takes a bit of getting used to and isn’t remotely intuitive, although a glance at the documentation and some tinkering makes it clearer how to use it. This is what the spreadsheet looked like while I was filling it out:


When I finally published the story, I noticed one significant challenge: I don’t know why, but the timeline.js interface could neither capture nor card any of the news organization websites/stories I linked to (although it did a beautiful job with YouTube). I finally opted for a strange workaround: I either took screen captures of the news stories and used those as static images (misleading from a UX perspective, since the user will almost certainly expect these to be clickable links) or I saved the stories as PDFs, hosted them on my own website, and then made them available as PDFs within timeline (less attractive, and still loses some of the richness of the original document).

Another problem: their interface doesn’t explain this, but in order for timeline.js to interpret your data and render it, you need to “publish your spreadsheet”. It becomes public, thereby exposing your data to the world. I don’t know if there’s a way to publish the spreadsheet privately and share the link with timeline.js, but I feel like this is something that could possibly be better outlined/addressed.

That said, one thing I did like was that it was easily possible to update the spreadsheet (once I published it). Live changes made to the document fed immediately into the rendering, making editing fairly breezy (I seemed to remember this from before.)


In retrospect, although this does function as an explainer, it’s a bit extensive and requires a pretty serious reader commitment in order to fully grasp. I’m glad I worked with the tool, and I think the chronological order helped, but there’s probably an even better way to build interactive tools for laypeople to read legal documents, and this project made me aware of the need for that.

Click here to check out the end result.