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Shortening Standard Date & Time Formats to Make Them Easier to Understandby@robmccormack
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Shortening Standard Date & Time Formats to Make Them Easier to Understand

by Rob McCormackJanuary 18th, 2023
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Too Long; Didn't Read

This article will show you how to shorten Python's standard date/time formats to "1 month ago", or "Just now". YouTube uses this for video publication dates. It's easy.
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Imagine if your favorite YouTube video displayed a publication date like 2017-10-07-14:55:09. Dates in this format require mental effort to understand. Have you ever misunderstood reading such dates by misjudging the year or month, or being off 2 hours due to the 24-hour format? This article will show you how to shorten standard date/time formats to 5 years ago or Just now. It would be hard to argue that this method isn't superior.

ChatGPT Assistance

I wrote this Python 3 script as a learning exercise. I employed ChatGPT to help with not only the programming but also the crafting of this article. I was surprised at how useful it was. (ChatGPT is a natural language processing tool driven by AI technology). ChatGPT seemed happy to write the introduction and the conclusion for this article. When I asked ChatGPT to write the entire article it replied: "I'm sorry that goes beyond my current capabilities." Oddly, it didn't complain when I requested additional paragraphs - which made me laugh. It turned out I had to write a lot of the article from scratch.

The Solution

Python will format the date to more readable formats like January 30, 2022 14:55:09 - a whopping 25 characters long. That helps a little bit with readability. This article will show you how to print dates as: 1 year ago or 1 month ago. If less than a minute ago then Just now will be printed. This is the same format that YouTube uses for time-stamping content.

Function Breakdown

The Python script consists of three main functions:

  1. calculate_time_difference(date_input) takes a date string as input and returns the difference between that date and the current time as a datetime.timedelta object.
  2. convert_time_difference_to_string(time_difference) converts the timedelta object into a human-readable string showing how much time has passed since the input date. This function work by looping through the time_units using for loop, starting with the largest time_unit (year) and checking with the current time_difference, if it's greater than or equal to this unit it returns the string with the number of unit and time_units, and then break out of the loop. The function also includes a check for returning Just now if the time difference is less than a minute.
  3. get_how_long_ago(date_input) combines the first two functions and handles any errors that might occur, such as invalid date formats or dates in the future.

You can change the date format of %Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S to suit your needs.

The last part of the script prints out examples of dates processed by get_how_long_ago. I've used now() to generate some of the examples. Cases for invalid dates are also provided.

Full Script

https://gist.github.com/Rob-McCormack/9fe570122fb6fadb5de0406a7bc9844d

You can customize this script to your own needs. For mobile devices, YouTube will often abbreviate 1 year ago to 1y ago. If you prefer that, simply change the year to y and comment out the test for pluralization as shown:

if num_units > 1:
    time_string += 's'

Going Further

Dates in Tables

It may be useful when presenting dates in a table to use the how long ago formatting. For example, compare the presentation of sample data sorted by Last_Visit field:

-------------------------------------
   ID   Dog Name         Last Visit
    1   Bella-boy       2023-01-08        
    3   Charlie         2022-07-01       
    2   Greta           2018-10-10      
      

Could be presented like this:

-------------------------------------
   ID   Dog Name         Last Visit
    1   Bella-boy       3 days ago       
    3   Charlie         6 months ago       
    2   Greta           4 years ago     
      

Provide Both Types of Formats

YouTube will first present you with 5 years ago but if you click or hover over that text, the exact date will be displayed, Oct 6, 2017. The function could return a tuple containing both formats. This may be a nice feature to consider in your programs that involve dates.

Conclusion

While this script provides a straightforward and effective solution for converting date strings into a more human-readable format. You may want to consider using the humanize Python package for even more advanced formatting options. Docs can be found here.


I hope you enjoy playing around with this technique in your projects.