Maps of the internet have been around in one form or another since the late 1990s, but most of these tend to be static, two-dimensional affairs. PEER 1 Hosting of Vancouver, British Columbia, is adding bit of depth to internet charting with its Map of the Internet app for iOS and Android devices that provides an interactive 3D representation of the online world. It’s purpose is to act as an educational tool showing the evolution of the internet from 1994 to the present, with projections going forward to 2020.

The internet is a bit like the London Underground – you know its there, but visualizing it is next to impossible. Sure its possible to make a map of what it actually looks like if you could open up the tunnels, but it wouldn’t be much more than a confusing pile of tangled lines. In the case of the internet, these lines would be a constantly shifting set of tangles.

What’s needed is something more functional. The Underground uses the classic approach of abandoning physical relationships for the connections between the lines and stations. An internet map takes a similar approach based on nodes and connections to build up a stylized representation of the net that explains its layout without displaying to the actual wires and satellite links.

The Map of the Internet app had its starting point in a 2011 infographic poster of the internet also created by PEER 1. Based on data from the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), the idea was to produce a more refined 3D, interactive version of the 2011 map showing 22,961 autonomous system nodes joined by 50,519 connections making up ISPs, universities, companies, internet exchange points, network information centers and organization networks weighted according to their size and connections.

The general appearance and the feel of the app is a pleasing mix of white and colored dots and balls that stand out nicely on the black background even on a small scale. The touchscreen interactions are fun, though not very practical if you’re like me and have big fingers and a small phone. The zoom is tricky to control and takes a bit of practice.

The operation of the app is fairly straightforward. There are two views, Globe and Network and a third Timeline function for both views.

In Globe view, you get a slowly rotating view of the Earth with the locations of the internet nodes represented as lighted circles. The color of the circles show the type of node, while the size shows its relative “size” based on connections. It’s a classic example of why a geographic map isn’t always the most effective because it often isn't clear what information we're seeing. One unfortunate point is that the lights are the only indication of a land mass and the globe itself is invisible save for graph lines, so its often difficult to figure out where you’re looking.

In Network view, the internet comes off looking like an electric jellyfish. The size and how far up the lighted balls representing the nodes are, the larger and better connected. The elevation is obvious, though it isn’t clear from looking what a ball’s position left or right or further or closer to the axis is supposed to convey.

The Timeline function is available in both views and is based on an algorithm that combines current data and predictions. It's the most entertaining of the features as you see what the internet looked like when the dotcom bubble burst or Youtube started. The app also uses an algorithm based on industry projections to show what the internet may look like in 2020 as the globe gets brighter or the jellyfish bigger.

However, the Timeline is also fiddly to navigate on a small screen. Adult fingers prove much too inaccurate so trying to select a specific year is likely to take a few attempts. Furthermore, the captions for each year blink out much too fast to read properly.

Other features for the Map of the Internet include a Search function. Fortunately, it's already preloaded with a list of suggested searches, which eliminates the frustrating "Cool, but I have no idea what to search for" conundrum. Tap on Google or Comcast and the ball representing it becomes the center of a spray of lines showing its major connections to other nodes.

The problem with the data returned by Search is the same as that shared by the Globe and Network view – it's difficult to decipher what the information presented means. What do the lines really signify? What do the connection numbers refer to? It looks cool, but it’s not as helpful as it could be. However, there’s also a Help function that has simple, graphic explanations of how to use the app.

According to Peer 1, the app can also map a trace route between the user’s location and a particular node, though this feature seems to not be active in the current Android version.

The Map of the Internet app is available as a free download from the App Store and Google Play.

Source: PEER 1 via FlowingData

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