Investigation – Chronology of Events

In addition to tracking the persons involved in an investigation, one also needs to track the events that occurred. Indeed, what happened and when and in what sequence are the essential components of any narrative. Thus, tracking events and their relation to one another and to the other facts of the case, including the relevant actors, documents, etc., is critical. The difficulty is that in the course of an investigation, events are revealed out of sequence and divorced from their context. The significance of any particular event isn’t usually apparent on arrival.

Tracking events in an investigation can be done in any number of ways, from the simple to the baroque. I favor the simple at the outset of an investigation because speed is of the essence. Events come quickly from various sources. Just one witness interview can yield dozens of dates and events. One small stack of documents can yield still more. Thus, the goal at the outset is to get each event entered into a tracking system. The hope is that, with the addition of each event, the narrative contours become more apparent.

Tinderbox provides a means to capture these events, to sort them chronologically and allowing the user to assess their relationship to other elements of the case. Tinderbox also allows the user to add events and new facts over time. This enables the user to change the relationship of events to one another as new facts are discovered.

In Tinderbox, I track events by using a prototype (protoEvent) and an agent. The prototype ensures that all my events bear the same characteristics, including a single characteristic by which they can all be retrieved. The agent then collects them and sorts them.

To do this, I ensure that the prototype, which I almost always call protoEvent, contains a few user-defined metadata fields. The first ensures that the events can be sorted effectively. Tinderbox always already tracks the date a note was created, which is fine if you create notes the moment an event occurs (e.g., when recording the fact of a meeting with a client or a phone conversation with opposing counsel). But this is obviously too limited concerning events in the past. Thus, I create a field to track the date the event actually occurred, I usually call this “EventDate”. The second is the boolean field “FuzzyDate,” which shows up as a checkbox to indicate that whether the date is precise or only an approximation. This is important to prevent the impression that the date in the date field is more solid than it would otherwise appear.

To create these fields and add them to the prototype, I first define them in the Attributes window (goto the Window/Attributes menu or hit command+2). The EventDate is a “Date” type attribute. This means that the input will be registered as a formal date. The default value is empty. The FuzzyDate attribute is a “boolean” type attribute. This means that for any note the FuzzyDate attribute will either be true or false. The default value is false because I find I usually have pretty solid dates for events.

Attributes Window Image - Fuzzy Date

Once created, these fields are st as the “Key attributes” for the prototype protoEvent. I do this by viewing the content of the protoEvent note and selecting the EventDate and FuzzyDate attributes from the Key attributes drop-down menu.

protoEvent note showing attributes

Once these fields are added to the prototype, every note based on that prototype will contain those attributes. Moreover, these fields will enable an agent to sort the events in chronological order. More on that below.

In addition to the date-related attributes, I also include an attribute called “Source”. This is a “string” type attribute, meaning that the attribute can collect any text input. I use this field to note who or what informed me about the event (e.g., if the Event is the signing of a contract, did I get the date from the contract itself or from Paul Jones who signed it or from some other source?). This is important information to assess how certain I am of the date and for tracking and verifying data later.

One can use the prototype to set the Color and or a Badge for each Event to ensure that they stand out from People and other notes. In addition, because of the way Tinderbox notes display in outline view, I typically start the Name of each Event note with the date the event occurred.

Small map view showing events

Once the prototype is set up, it is easy to add Events to the case file rapidly. Each note based on the prototype inherits all of the key features, including color, badge-type, and metadata fields. One need only type the Name of the note and add two or three key bits of metadata.

Once the prototype is established, Event notes viewed in map view will appear consistent with one another and distinguishable from from other types of notes. In this way, events close in time can be arranged close in proximity or grouped by theme or other aspect. This is a useful workspace for the arrangement of dated events and other facts.

However, often the most useful way to review a sequence of events is in chronological order. To do this without disturbing the arrangement of the notes in map view is to use an agent keyed to the protoEvent prototype. The agent is created like any other, but instead of having it collect notes based on a text string or a name, I have it search for notes where the prototype=protoEvent and then have the agent sort them by the EventDate metadata field.

Chronology agent dialog box

The output of this agent is a simple list of all of the events in chronological order according to EventDate. Here the usefulness of the date-first naming convention is apparent as the dates of different events can be read in sequence.

Chronology agent outline view

The disadvantage of this kind of listed date chronology is that it compresses the time elapsed between events. All events are equidistant from their predecessors and successors regardless whether they are separated by two days, two months, or two years.

The great advantage of Tinderbox is that the same set of dates can be displayed in different ways simultaneously. Thus, when I wish to view or review the distance between events spatially, I use the map view. The agent’s listed chronology of dates is still available to me even as I move the dates further or closer apart.

Map view showing events and people


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