Unofficial Channels: Data Sonification Archive

Article I wrote for The Wire about the website sonification.design

A merging of distant galaxies that hits the ear like the Doppler effect on an urban highway. El Niño weather patterns as expressed by an instrumental ensemble. Covid-19 statistics that transform into an increasingly complex drone. These are not gestures conceived by modern classical composers. This is scientific research, examples of data sonification, a word still underlined in red by word processors despite its high profile exploration at NASA, the United Nations, and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Data sonification is an umbrella term for a growing variety of techniques by which information — from stock market fluctuations to DNA sequences to air pollution trends — gets represented through sound. Sonification is often compared with data visualization, an iffy correlation that perhaps fueled unrealistic expectations for its widespread utility.

Still, engaging work happens regularly. In the first example above, the creators fast-forwarded through billions of years of planetary activity to orient the listener: “the surround sound enables them to hear the galaxies approach from each side and orbit around each other before finally merging together,” write the collaborators, from two observatories and the engineering firm Arup, in accompanying documentation.

The weather one is by Benjamin Renard, a hydrologist doing statistical analysis of climatic datasets. The pandemic one is by Chelidon Frame, extrapolating open data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. These works are among the nearly 400 examples of sonification that constitute the ever-growing collection indexed at the website sonification.design. The online resource is maintained by Sara Lenzi and Paolo Ciuccarelli, both from the Center for Design at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Asked on a Zoom call if she has identified best practices of what works in sonification, Lenzi, who researched the topic for her PhD at the Polytechnic University of Milan, helpfully reframed the inquiry: “The main research question was,” she says, “does sonification work or not? Is it going somewhere or not?” Sonification doesn’t “replace” data visualization, she argues. “It never really came out of its niche.” But a diminishing sonic purism is allowing a new wave of intriguing work, according to Lenzi: “People started using different strategies, like combining it with other sensory modalities,” among them data visualization. In the Covid-19 example cited above, a user interface (you adjust how quickly time passes) and fluid diagrams align with the drone to make a deeper impression on the user than sound or image alone would have.

Lenzi is currently working on a report summarizing the first year of sonification.design, which launched in January 2021. “We curate the collection,” she explains. “We don’t accept automatically what is sent to us by the submission form. We analyze each case.” And since the field remains new, the website’s categorization, Lenzi says, “keeps changing.”

The above is slightly expanded from the version that appeared in the Unofficial Channels column in the May 2022 issue of The Wire.

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