Leveraging music to help people understand data

In a guest post for OJB, Ion Mates interviews Tom Levine and Roman Heindorff about the role of audio in data journalism.

Audiolisation (sometimes called ‘auralization‘ or ‘sonification’) is the process of turning complex data to sound.

Instead of using graphics and bar charts, one can represent the contents of a spreadsheet by assigning sounds to different kinds of data.

In the above example, the activity of newsrooms is represented by verses, phrases and different rhythms. The author is Thomas Levine.

Beginning to represent data as audio

Tom started playing with computers from an early age. His main interest was to design things towards them being easier to use.

After some academic research in the subject, he started to delve into data. He found that there is so much information available that you need new ways to represent it completely.

“I’ve been looking for ways of expanding visualisation to allow us to represent more dimensions of data in one piece, to understand a more complex picture,” says Tom.

Statistically, you can understand things better if you represent more dimensions. It’s important to see variables together so the interaction between them is obvious.

In the words of Edward Tufte, we need to“escape flatland”.

Tom says that this need comes from the amount of information and the available computing power to process it. He began creating what he calls…

“Music videos”

“We have to represent abstract data for human consumption in the form of something that can be perceived. Visualisation is just using vision so we could use any of our other senses. With audiolisation, we’re designing for the ear.”

There isn’t one way to do this. Tom starts with a rough analysis of the data to find variables that are interesting to match-up.

As with all data, it’s important to find a trend, otherwise you end up with random noise. Variables without a trend need to be put some way that they don’t interfere.

He also takes things further and makes everything musical in the same way that graphs are often shaped to look aeshetically pleasing

Occasionally, if the data wasn’t triggering sounds, he would, in order to add that unique pleasant element, create a song.

“People are used to listening to music so we can leverage that to help them perceive data.” says Tom.

Should I try data audiolisation?

“The good thing about journalists playing with music videos is that it’s another way of looking for interesting stories,” says Roman Heindorff.

Roman Heindorff spent 7 years as a journalist in the UK. At 24, he moved to New York where he wanted to set up his own lifestyle magazine.

He later created a virtual newsroom called Camayak. He and Tom connected through an online audio community.

Both feel that audiolisation should be approached the same as visualisation in that you would need to know the theory behind making sounds and have a musical ear.

Without off-the-shelf software, Tom uses music synthesisers and then combines audio and video in R.

He also says that people should represent data using skills they already have. For instance, he’s trying to reach all of the senses with an intriguing process called gastronomification.

Here are more examples of sound made from data.

A version of this post first appeared on Ion Mates’s blog. Ion is a student on the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University.

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