The Sonification of Data


    The question started out harmless enough. “Hey Ginger, do you want to pick an interesting Max project to talk about?”
    And so, I shopped around the Cycling ‘74 Projects library, the same way I walk around the drug store late at night wearing my mom jeans and old Birkenstocks.
    This one caught my eye:
    "Through the use of publicly available live footage from New York’s Traffic Management Center, Junction tracks the movements of taxis in some of the city’s busiest intersections. It uses their position, velocity and overall density to synthesize sounds."
    I had chosen a similar project based on “hearing information” for my section in the 1000 Max Projects Staff Picks, and to my surprise, they were both from the same person, Micah Frank.
    A large reason for my interest here lies in the basic ideas of sonification. I think it’s a big deal. Like, sliced bread big deal.

    In other words, why just let the visual people have all the fun?

    If you think about all this data that we encounter on a daily basis, a vast majority of it is visual. Graphs, drawings, charts, infographics with those icons you see on bathroom signs; these are all visualizations of data to show us how the economy is doing or who is leading in the polls or how much weight one of those Kardashians gained in the past two years. Whatever.
    We’ve essentially ingested this type of data using our eyes. Mostly two-dimensional compositions using tabs, circles, whirlygigs and, okay, JavaScript. While our interactions with this data may have advanced to the point of seeing things happen in real time or being able to manipulate it like on Minority Report, the output still generally remains unchanged.
    Because in the age of new technologies and unstoppable curiosity, projects like Junction introduce very inclusive opportunities for very practical applications.
    The presentation of data is an artform in itself. The practice exists to inform and engage, and this is what we rely on to make decisions, big and small. It is a basis for us understanding something, and if we don’t get a good enough picture, if this data is not presented well enough, it is the difference between buying the right zit cream, to countries declaring war against each other.
    Just like the talking pictures changed the way we all saw movies and film, can the same thing not be applied to situations where Gene Kelly is not wearing a bouffant?

    Why You Rattlesnake You...

    Or in this case, sound giving us the opportunity to experience infinitesimally small objects, with Lily Asquith from CERN, speaking at TEDxZurich:

    Listening to data from the Large Hadron Collider | Lily Asquith |TEDxZurich

    The sonification of data. How amazing.

    • Oct 14 2015 | 12:08 pm
      Sonification is pretty cool and can impart very useful information when the right sounds are used to model the data. People have been working on sonification (or perhaps more accurately, audification, when referring to understanding data) for a long time. Greg Kramer started ICAD (International Conference on Auditory Display) in the early 90s and in those days a lot of us were experimenting with different ways to leverage audio to understand data (and some were doing it solely for artistic purposes as well). Quite a few were focused on really large data datasets such as data from PET scans (maybe not as much as from the LHC but pretty damn big). Max Mathews was doing sonification in the 70s and as someone on wikipedia pointed out, the Geiger counter (in the first decade of the last century) was a sonification device.
    • Oct 14 2015 | 3:47 pm
      Exactly. Things like sonar detection have also been so great for discovering/mapping incomprehensible spaces. It's like the wild west in space! We found the Titanic with this stuff!
      It's like giving someone a better view or angle at something, and it just opens up the clubhouse for everyone to have some fun.
      Here's another awesome project that tracks the orbital movement of the planets and turns it into music: http://whitevinyldesign.com/solarbeat/
    • Oct 14 2015 | 4:57 pm
      Ginger, thank you for your post! As a scientist and composer I am deeply involved with data sonification and remix for artistic reinterpretation. you can read about my project about music and scientific data from materials science here: http://www.materialssoundmusic.com/ or listen to a podcast of this interview with Darwin Grosse for Art+Music+Technology: http://artmusictech.libsyn.com/podcast-080-marco-buongiorno-nardelli marco
    • Oct 14 2015 | 9:12 pm
      creative regards
    • Oct 15 2015 | 8:57 am
      You can check out my sonification toolbox DataScapR, which I released this year. You can sonify real-time and historical stock market data and send the mapped data to a VST/MIDI instrument or create a symbolic score with Bach. YOU can read more about it on datascapr.wordpress.com
    • Oct 16 2015 | 2:13 pm
      That's so cool. I'm very interested in sonification for both data analysis but also for artistic purposes. I have recently taken to mining sound from large binary files. Software sounds fascinating. However, hard drive images are the most interesting. After a while, you can start picking out file types, provided they aren't compressed as the high entropy just creates white noise.
      Also, more interestingly, my friend Vince Giles is for his PhD sonifying mass spectrometry data and creating a series of works as part of his School of Chemistry/Bio 21 residency.
    • May 04 2016 | 9:18 am
      Think samuel
      DataScapR look like the ONE thing I need for my new project, but its unable to download from your wordpress