Headphones designed by Paul Philippe Berthelon Bravo from the Noun Project

Sensing as Listening

How sensor journalism helps us listen to our environment and each other

Listening — and listening well — is a skill that should not be undervalued.

Sam Ford of Peppercomm distinguishes between hearing and listening in the Digital PR & Social Media Guidebook: “Listening is an active endeavor — an attempt to not just hear something but to process its meaning.” Josh Stearns also writes about listening as a way of intimating community stories and building relationships in “Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities.” According to anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, listening metaphysically induces immersion:

“The dominant phenomenology of Western science and religion holds that ‘hearing is concerned with interiors, vision is concerned with surfaces…hearing tends toward subjectivity, vision tends toward objectivity…hearing is a sense that immerses us in the world, vision is a sense that removes us from it’” (Sterne, qtd. 626).

These aforementioned works prompted me to think about listening in the context of sensors, sensing, and ultimately the feedback loops that connect sensors, data, and people.

If we think of a sensor as something that is able to “listen” to its environment, we might consider sensing as a form of immersion in that environment; a mode of knowledge generation/transfer; and a polestar of human-centered design.

Sensors are often designed to perform tasks that our five senses cannot do efficiently or cannot do, period. For example, a thermometer is a sensor that measures temperature, which humans can sense with touch but without much accuracy. An example of the latter case might be a barometer, which is designed to measure atmospheric pressure, something that lies beyond our own human capacity to sense without tools.

Thus, sensors can aid in gathering information about our environments that we might use for raising awareness about certain conditions or for making decisions about how to react to the environment ourselves. It seems appropriate to point to some citizen science/sensing initiatives that deal with listening in its most literal sense:

Projects like NoiseTube and EveryAware’s WideNoise aim to turn smartphones into mobile noise level meters. Participants of these projects measure and map noise in their environments using the device’s microphone. The data generated help researchers build toward a better understanding of noise distribution and noise pollution in urban/non-urban spaces, which could then benefit urban planning initiatives, city design, and regulation of things like traffic and construction.

These projects intentionally build feedback loops between the microphone sensor, the environment, the participant, and the research entity running the project. One can also imagine similar applications and feedback loops for other environmental factors like air quality, water quality, etc.

Image: WideNoise 3.0 app (http://cs.everyaware.eu/event/widenoise)

There is also something to be said for listening as a methodology for designing sensors and sensor-based projects. This harkens to IDEO’s philosophy of human-centered design: leading with listening to build empathy with your audience; to understand the problems that your design is meant to address for that audience; and to capture stories from that audience as the basis of your ethnographic research.

For instance, if one endeavors to build an air quality sensor for New Delhi, India, some important questions to consider might be: Who is going to use this sensor? What are the challenges and limitations of existing/alternative methods of measuring air quality in that specific place? What resolution of data is needed in order to make proper assessments? Who will have access to the data? What training is needed for people to deploy the sensor appropriately? How can the data be rendered most legible for the community/communities it is meant to serve?

We must recognize the importance of these questions because the way a sensor is designed affects how it is perceived, how it is used, and how it performs. Consider the contrast between the first and most recent version of the AirCast sensor. The prototype version might seem approachable to another member of the DIY/open hardware community, but it may look intimidating to someone who has never interacted with open electronics.

Image: Prototype of AirCasting sensor (http://habitatmap.org/habitatmap_docs/HowToBuildAnAirCastingAirMonitor.pdf)
Image: Screenshot of instructions on building the AirCasting sensor (http://habitatmap.org/habitatmap_docs/HowToBuildAnAirCastingAirMonitor.pdf)
Image: Most recent version of the AirCasting sensor, the AirBeam (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/741031201/airbeam-share-and-improve-your-air)

The most recent version of the sensor looks very different and speaks to the transformation it went through. Visually, the sensor looks friendlier — it’s more colorful and has smoother lines. Whereas the hardware was exposed in the prototype, it is completely obscured in the most recent iteration. And the sensor also underwent a name change from AirCast (which is a technical term for the process of measuring air quality) to AirBeam, something that sounds more like the name of a product. Since the sensor is open source, it’s still possible to look up the instructions to build the earlier version, but these design changes directly reflect the audience that the AirCasting team currently intends to engage with the tool.

[Edit] As sensored environments become more common, there are also important ethical implications to be considered. Depending on the sensor design, one can expect data to be collected about the environment and about people both passively and actively — oftentimes beyond our awareness and control. We must be conscious of positive and negative implications of sensor technology such that we privilege ways of using sensors to improve how we listen to our environment and each other.

Special thanks to Josh Stearns for suggesting the topic of this blog post and to Javaun Moradi who tuned me into the different design iterations of the AirCasting sensor.


Digital PR & Social Media Guidebook, Vol. 6. Access Intelligence. PR News Press. 2010.

Helmreich, Stefan. “An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography.” Anthrosource. American Ethnologist, Vol. 34 No. 4. Published November 2007. Accessed 17 November 2014.

How to Build an Aircasting Monitor. HabitatMap.

Human-Centered Design Toolkit, 2nd edition. IDEO. Web. Accessed 17 November 2014.

Nelson, Jennifer. “Sensor journalism: Finding meaning within the data.” Reynolds Journalism Institute. Blog. Published May 5, 2014. Accessed 17 November 2014.

Stearns, Josh. “The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy, and Control.” Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Blog. Accessed 20 November 2014.

NoiseTube project.

EveryAware’s WideNoise project.