Just like visualization helps you consume data through your eyes, data sonification does the exact same for your ears. Sonification can express data in a variety of ways by leveraging different instruments, synthesizers, volume, speed, pitches, instrument-density, or dynamics. This can result in anything from presenting single data points as notes to crafting entire musical compositions based on large scientific data sets. Alan Smith has sonified the yield curve, Brian Foo lets you hear income inequality in NYC, and even climate change can be listened to.
Being a Singer Songwriter and Senior Digital Analytics Consultant, data sonification really hits my sweet spot. So I started exploring the field by building a mini web application that lets you listen to your own data points:
In a nutshell, the site…
- Takes data input — either manually entered data points or dynamic analytics data straight from the AT Internet API
- Transforms the data points into comparable indices to simplify the alignment of data and musical notes
- Assigns each range of indices to a note on the C major scale
- Uses the Tone.js framework to play the sequence of notes in the browser
Of course, this site is just a tiny example. And quite frankly — a useless one as well. But it helped me to truly grasp the underlying concept. It gives sonification a concrete shape and makes it palpable. It is funny listening to the hourly traffic of a news website and being able to hear when people are asleep. Just like it gave me a chuckle, when I was listening to eCommerce data and the Black Friday sales resulted in the highest pitched note my headphones had ever played. Minor examples like these seem like a good starting point for focusing on a bigger picture. Data sonification is still in the very early stages of its potential development, but on a broader scope, the concept has much bigger implications:
- Being able to listen to a graph gives visually impaired people a way to comprehend data visualizations.
- Using creative ways of presenting data helps us capture audience attention and get a message across. Use cases can range from the previously mentioned climate change example to ‘listening to the online conversions from your newest SEM-campaign in the office in real-time’. It helps the analyst (…or the artist…) to “curate an experience” around data.
- The recent advent of voice user interfaces is driving technology usage away from displays, challenging us to embed data availability in the context of an increasingly screenless everyday life.
Data is the most valuable asset in our modern world. Not only is sonification an innovative way of presenting and consuming data. At its core, it is also a tool to make data available and accessible for everyone.
— If anyone is interested in the source code or wants to get together for a data-jam-session, feel free to reach out. —