We all know what a picture's worth
People live. People die. Tweets fly. Android is eating the world. Sharing too much info on social networks can be bad. The Internet, well, it just works.
Most of us understand these things at a high level. Of course people die. But mere words and concepts don't drive home the sheer magnitude of the things buzzing all around us, all the time. For some things, actually seeing the data in real-time visualizations hits you in a far more visceral way than a wall o' text ever could.
These websites will change the way you see the world. If nothing else, you'll never view your Facebook posts in the same, lighthearted way ever again.
Watch the world get hacked live
Let's start with the tool that inspired our trek through visualized data. This mesmerizing map by security provider Norse is a snapshot of how common hack attacks really are across the globe. It shows real-time penetration attempts just on a subset of Norse's own "honeypot" hacking traps—a smidgen of total activity worldwide. (Wait until a DDoS attack lights up the screen!) The glowing neon aesthetic and rainbow-colored "shots" give the whole thing a nifty WarGames-like vibe, too.
What's not so impressive is just how many attacks there are, each and every second of each and every day. The true magnitude of worldwide attacks is far, far greater than even this terrifying map reveals.
We don't want to bum you out yet! On the softer side, Tweetping.net's map shows Tweets in real-time across the globe, with the individual tweets popping up on the map for the briefest of split seconds before disappearing, only to replaced by dozens more. Heat maps display the parts of the globe with the most activity. Compiled stats at the bottom show hard numbers about where those 140-character bursts are coming from, as well as the last-logged @mentions and hashtags.
Tweetping is hypnotic to watch, and it'll give you a new-found appreciation for just how popular the social media network truly is. While I was viewing it, the site tracked more than 3,500 tweets in a single minute.
But what are all those tweets actually talking about? Trendsmap shows you the topics currently trending across the globe, overlaid on a map. The larger the hashtag, the more popular it is. Trendsmap shines a light on just how different, say, San Francisco Twitter is from Africa Twitter—and also drives home when the entire world is enthralled by a particular piece of news. (At the time of this writing, it's World Cup fever everywhere.)
Not all social sharing is so innocuous. Launched to promote the hacking-focused Watch Dogs video game, Ubisoft's Digital Shadow lays bare just how much personal information Facebook apps can devour when they ask permission to access your account.
After granting Digital Shadow access to your accounts, it digs in and then shows all it learned: Your closest Friends, your occupation, your location, your most common words and posting times, your Friend's most-used phrases, your age and profession, and potentially even your net worth. Something to think about next time a fart app wants to link to your Facebook account. (Note: Digital Shadow doesn't seem to play nice with Chrome; use another browser.)
Data, data everywhere
Another Watch Dogs-related website, We Are Data, shows just how much publicly available data is out there if somebody knows where to look. We Are Data offers street-level information about the bytes and bits flowing across Berlin, Paris, and London. The site shows exact locations of current activity on Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram, and Flicker, open mobile lines, traffic lights, CCTV and ATM locations, and notable electromagnetic fields. Heck, it even shows the location of trains as they crawl along the rails.
Clicking on a Tweet icon and seeing specific tweets from a named individual sent from a specific location is downright eerie. We Are Data demonstrates how easily available that data is.
The all-seeing Google eye
Continuing the "sharing information even when you don't realize it" theme, consider Google Maps—an amazingly useful tool that's downright ubiquitous on Androids and iPhones alike. But even when you aren't actively using the app, Google has its eye on the phone in your pocket.
Sign into your Google account and click this link to view the location history Google has on you. Be sure to change the option in the Show drop-down box on the left to "30 days" for a more startling view. Yep, Google's watching your every step, and if you play around with the calendar tool, you'll see the tracking goes back months and months.
Fortunately, you can delete your history on this page if you'd like, and you can learn how to turn Google's Location History off permanently on this help page. (Just being aware that doing so can bork contextually-aware services like Google Now.)
A look at your history
Okay, enough scary talk for now—time for something fun. While it's not technically a website, the Iconic History Chrome extension by Shan Huang displays your browser history as a visual tapestry of the assorted sites' icons, letting you see where you're wasting all your time at a quick glance. (I guess I like Google.) Mousing over each icon reveals page details.
Life-altering? Nope. But Iconic History is still an intriguing tool—and possibly useful, if you're trying to identify which sites to avoid during work hours.
It's who you know
So now you know where you spend your time on the web; let's see who you spend all your time communicating with. MIT's Immersion project visualizes the people you email the most after you connect your Gmail, Yahoo, or Microsoft Exchange account, as well as how your contacts are connected to each other. It's all based off the metadata from your messages—you know, the information that the NSA says is no big deal to collect in bulk.
Check it out and see if you agree with that thinking afterward. (Don't forget to click on individual contact names for more detail!) Fear not: Immersion will delete your information after use if you don't want your metadata stored for analysis.
Tracking the hub-bub
Newsmap visualizes the news that has the world all a-flutter by scraping Google News, then weaving an interactive tapestry. The topics that have received the most coverage appear larger, while lesser-covered news appears smaller. It's all color-coordinated by type—business, global news, technology, and so forth. Clicking a topic brings you to the top Google News result for it. Newsmap's a great way to see exactly what is capturing the world's attention in real time, proportional to everything else.
The circle of life
With more than 7 billion souls currently calling Earth home, people die and are born at a torrid pace. This gripping map simulates those vital moments, using data to flash projected births and deaths (in exact locations) on a map in real time. The flood of rapidly replaced red and green dots popping up around the world help you deeply understand just how massive this circle of life really is, in ways that mere numbers never could. It also highlights how many more people there are across the oceans than here in the U.S.
The Atlantic has details about the map's backstory if you're interested.