I hate Christmas-time scheduling. It’s a pretty busy time of year and it involves rushing around the country trying to see as many family members as possible. Scheduling this in is really fiddly, as Sophie and I live about 70 miles away from various parts of our families. This means that we have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out the best possible way for us to see as much of our respective families as possible — all while trying to maximise the amount of time that we spend together as a couple as well. Another complication is that Sophie works in the retail sector and only tends to get 3-4 days’ holiday (as it turns out, retailers are rather stingy with their Christmas holiday allowances!). Bundle all of these problems together and what you have is a scheduling nightmare.

The biggest problem that I have when coming up with Christmas plans is visualising the schedule in my head — keeping track of which of us drives to whose house and when (we usually drive down separately because I get a couple of days’ more holiday than Sophie). This got me thinking: is there a visualisation that can help?

Enter Marey’s train schedule diagram. Etienne-Jules Marey was a French scientist, cinematographer, and general all-round brainbox in the late 19th Century — and one of his more well-known creations is a neat visualisation method for train schedules. I first came across this image on the front cover of Edward Tufte’s famous dataviz masterpiece “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, but I’d also come across an implementation in D3 by Mike Bostock for the metro in the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought that this could probably be adapted to fit my needs quite nicely.

Marey's train schedule

So, here’s a recap of the problem. Sophie and I have different amounts of holiday. We have three different groups of families to see, and must spend at least one evening with each group. With it being Christmas, we’d also like to minimise the amount of driving (because we’d rather be spending that time with family — and let’s face it — we’d probably like to have a couple of glasses of wine, too). We’d also like to spend as much time together as possible because… well… we’re a couple, after all.

After an hour or two tinkering with D3, I modified Mike Bostock’s original version to something that looked a little like this (the black line is me, the gold line is Sophie).

Long story short, this neat diagram helped me visualise what we’d be doing a little more clearly — and subsequently allowed me to make a couple of tweaks to our schedule that meant we’d be spending more time with our families (with less travelling, too!).

And that’s the story of how the Grinch Etienne-Jules Marey saved Christmas.