Hi there! This is the super-secret Loud Numbers development log newsletter, which you signed up to at some point in the hopefully-not-too-distant past.
I’m Duncan Geere, and with my co-host Miriam Quick we’re making a data sonification podcast. This newsletter is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what that means on a week-to-week basis.
Things have actually been a little quiet on the creative front this week - we’re doing a little scripting of the beer episode, and paying the bills with client work. But we did want to mention an academic paper that came out that’s closely related to what we’re doing.
Intentionality and Design
Right, so. This paper. It’s titled Intentionality and design in the data sonification of social issues, and it’s by Sara Lenzi (a PhD researcher in Design at Politecnico di Milano) and Paolo Ciuccarelli (a design professor + founding director at the Center for Design at Northeastern University).
It places five data sonifications of sensitive social issues along a scale of ‘intentionality’, the degree to which they are “designed to explicitly help the listener to intuitively and emotionally connect” with that issue.
At the most intentional end of the scale is Egypt Building Collapses, which represents collapsing buildings using… the sound of a collapsing building. There’s a clear point to this, it’s data-driven advocacy.
At the other end, Brian Foo’s Two Trains maps income levels along NYC’s 2 train subway line to the quantity, volume and force of instruments to create a piece of music with a satisfying narrative arc, but without passing judgement on income inequality.
What we’re trying to do is towards the Brian Foo end of the scale, perhaps even off the end. We’re using data as a structuring material to create pieces of music that (we hope!) sound good. Often using genre references (techno, jazz, hip hop etc).
But how much prior knowledge (of musical genres etc.) do you assume when designing a sonification? Surely it depends on your goal, whether that’s widespread understanding of data and story, or just something that sounds good. And how much you’re explicitly campaigning or doing advocacy with data, versus staying neutral about it, of course.
That said, we don’t think sound is ever neutral. Sound is always emotional – it only varies in the extent to which that emotion is culturally mediated, filtered through knowledge of specific musical genres and reference points.
Which leaves us with a question for you. If you make sonifications, where do you sit along this spectrum? And if you don’t, how strongly do you feel about “intentionality” in this way? Does it matter to you as a listener? We’re very curious about how people feel about this, so hit reply and let us know!