Have you ever listened to a data set?

Text by Melanie Picard

Big Data has become one of those terms that you hear everywhere nowadays. It describes data sets so huge and complex that they are almost impossible to capture. It refers to all different types of data: audio, video, text, files, and more.

Data can be used to measure everything that happens here on earth, and beyond—NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity is sending us more data from Mars. The scale at which data proliferates in this age of technology is mind blowing.

So what if we just let it sit somewhere, unused and gathering virtual dust? Bad idea. First, finding the space to store tones of data is already a challenge. Second, data matters and is valuable for the society. The information hidden in these numbers and pictures and other bits of information is powerful, but it needs to be properly presented to unlock solutions to the problems we face. Finding ways to interpret and analyze this information that resonate with us is key: we respond better to stories than charts full of raw numbers and statistics.

In the first issue of SN, swissnex San Francisco’s magazine, we look at how data visualization experts are developing impressive storytelling skills by making sense of otherwise-unused piles of data. Visualization is now a well-established approach that is nevertheless hampered by the limitations of our sense of sight itself. Sonification is now seen as a promising complementary approach. More and more sonification experts rise to the challenge of telling stories via sound, introducing and extending sonification methods in various other fields.

SN issue #1

“Big Data. Huge Insights.

Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t always show the whole story either. Especially given the scale at which data proliferates, piles up, and just sits there mutely. Fortunately, data visualization experts and amateurs are helping to make sense of it. And that means taming data to shape a better world, a better life, and just maybe to find better parking.”

swissnex San Francisco is currently featuring trees: Downy Oak, a surround-sound installation from sound artist Marcus Maeder and biologist Roman Zweifel. This exhibition tells the story of a Swiss forest over an entire year of growth. What does a forest really sound like? You might be familiar with the sound of cracking branches, chattering squirrels, or wind blowing through the leaves, but have you ever heard the sunrise? Do you know what soil humidity sounds like? Stop at swissnex San Francisco before August 17th and find out.

Through this fantastic installation, Maeder renders ecophysiological cycles audible. The recordings come from two types of data: audio data collected from downy oaks, and traditional, numeric data generated by Zweifel from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). Zweifel had a deep understanding of his data set before joining up with Maeder on the sound project. However, hearing his work sonified gave him a different perspective and allowed him to uncover new revelations about the trees he studies. Through our auditory capacity, we’re able to perceive much more than with our vision, which is constrained because we can typically only focus on one thing at a time. Our ears can detect sounds that vary widely in volume, position, and distance from us.

Maeder and Zweifel are well versed in the sounds of downy oak forests, but while they were in California recently, they wanted to stretch their auditory experience and listen to the giant redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument. On a foggy, late-July day, they led an afternoon workshop with a small group of incurably curious tree lovers and acoustic aficionados in the heart of this millennial forest.

Maeder deployed his field materials for this workshop in front of a fascinated audience: a needle-shaped microphone, a sound amplifier, a computer, and headphones. It sounds simple enough, but the challenge is to insert the needle as close as possible to the tree’s central transpiration system without interfering with the process itself. Once the system was in place, all that was left to do was listen. How magical it was to stand in the middle of the tallest trees on earth with headphones and listen to the trees.

We’re just beginning to realize the possibilities for data sonification to help us understand the world around us. As techniques improve, we’ll only be limited by our own creativity. Imagine all the sound potential out there that we have yet to discover.