Data Sonification Methods

I’m still delving into the art and science of data sonification, and considering how it might be used to communicate technical information. In Data Sonification with a Purpose, I reported on some fascinating ways that Brian Foo (The Data Driven DJ) uses sound to report complex statistical information. Another interesting example is for monitoring network traffic—Network Activity Renderer (NeAR).

Sarah Frazier’s article, “Sonification: Data like you’ve never heard before”, on earthzine.org reports two common methods for turning data into sound:

  • Audification – writing data directly to a sound file. This method is used for a data set with many data points. For example, earth quake or solar radiation sonification might include many data points for a single event.
  • Parameter mapping – relating different parameters of a data set to distinct musical sounds. This method is used for a data set with multiple data points. For example, solar wind sonification might include parameters for speed, density, and temperature.

Data sonification is an interesting idea, and a topic worth tracking as people try out more implementations. I’m especially interested in its applications for monitoring network traffic and security in public or private cloud landscapes. Here is a Pinterest board for interesting ideas in data sonification: https://www.pinterest.com/mjquisenberry/steps-the-blog-data-sonification/

Data Sonification with a Purpose

My latest quest is learning more about data sonification, which is the use of sound to convey data. Recall in Data Sonification, we reviewed several familiar examples, such the Geiger counter and sonar; and learned about several novel applications, such as NASA using sound to convey information about space to astronauts, and software developer Brian Foo using sound to report median household income.

To learn more, I visited Foo’s website, Data Driven DJ. Foo provides ten data sonification examples that he created for New York Public Library Labs. Foo documents each project (the song created, the data source, the process, and so on). You can listen to the sound track only, or with visuals. Both are powerful. A few of my favorites:

Air Play – Smog Music Created with Beijing Air Quality Data

Distance from Home – Four Decades of Global Refugee Movement

Color Balance – A Soundtrack for Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in Blockbuster Movies

I’m hooked, but a little skeptical. How would this work in everyday life? Is there a place for data sonification in fields, such as health care, financial industry, manufacturing, software and hardware development, and so forth? What would it mean to ordinary folks just walking around, and interacting with the world? What would the user interface be? What would the user experience be for people who are hard of hearing, tone deaf, or completely deaf? I may lack vision, but I am open to learning more!

Data Sonification

While researching data visualization (using graphics to convey information), I came across the fascinating field of data sonification. Data sonification refers to using sound to convey information. This isn’t a new idea – almost everyone recognizes the static sound of a Geiger counter registering radiation, or the pinging sound of a sonar registering the size and proximity of objects in water. NASA scientists found ways to use sound to convey data to astronauts in the field via sound.

sinusiodal waveform

Sine waves oscilloscope and harmonics (image from Creativity103.com, Creative Commons)

I was introduced to data sonification on The Takeaway on our local NPR radio channel. In “Turning Data into Sound”, John Hockenberry interviews Brian Foo of New York Public Library Labs. Foo is a developer who is exploring fascinating ways to use data sonification. One example is using sound to indicate the median household income in several New York City boroughs. Foo associated sound with data points (household income), and created a sound track using the framework of a subway travelling through the Manhattan locations. As incomes rise and fall, so does the sound track. Take a listen to the pod cast: http://www.wnyc.org/story/turning-data-sound/

This is a fascinating idea! With so much data swirling around us and competing for our attention, how could we use sound to subtly (or powerfully) convey information? This is something to learn more about, and consider implementing to improve user experience.