Using Sound to Create Accessible Ocean Data

Mindy Todd of WCAI Radio interviewed Amy Bower, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution physical oceanographer and senior scientist, and Jon Bellona, sound artist with Harmonic Laboratory and senior instructor of audio production at the University of Oregon about their “Accessible Ocean” project, which uses sound to portray OOI data.  The team is applying a “sonification” process that maps numbers into sound to OOI data nuggets, created by the Ocean Data Labs for use in the classroom. Their goal is to inclusively design and pilot auditory displays of real ocean data that can ultimately be included in museum displays to reach broad audiences.

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Learn more about the Accessible Ocean project here.

[caption id="attachment_33007" align="aligncenter" width="1760"] Data sonification. ©WHOI.[/caption] Read More

Making the Ocean Accessible Through Sound

“Scientists are finding that people can sometimes pick up more information from their ears than the eyes can see.  And ears can perceive patterns in the data that the eyes can’t see,” said Amy Bower, a Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Principal Investigator for the Accessible Oceans project. “Adding sound to science allows more people to experience science, follow their curiosity, and make science more accessible to all. “

Bower joined forces with a multidisciplinary team to explore ways sound could be used to visualize data.  Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program, Bower and her team have been working for nearly two years on Accessible Oceans: Exploring Ocean Data through Sound.  Their goal is to inclusively design and pilot auditory displays of real ocean data.  They are implementing a process called sonification, assigning sound to data points.  Each member brings expertise to the task at hand.  Principal Investigator Bower is an oceanographer. Dr. Jon Bellona is a sound designer with specialization in data sonification at the University of Oregon.  Dr. Jessica Roberts and graduate student Huaigu Li, both at Georgia Tech, are Learning Sciences and human-computer interaction experts.  Dr. Leslie Smith, an oceanographer and specialist in ocean science education and communication at Your Ocean Consulting, Inc., rounds out the team.  Bower is a blind scientist, who lends a crucial perspective in the research and overall execution of the project.

To begin, the team chose to use datasets collected by the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) that had previously been transformed into classroom-ready use by Smith and the Ocean Data Labs. The team is working first on three of these curated datasets: the 2015 eruption of Axial Seamount, the vertical migration of zooplankton during an eclipse event, and carbon dioxide exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere.

“Data is made of numbers. Sonification is basically just translating numbers into sound,” Bower explained. “So instead of seeing numbers go up and down on a graph, for example, you can hear them go up and down.”

To ensure an inclusive final product, the team has undertaken a co-design process in which a variety of stakeholders have been engaged for input throughout the process. The team interviewed both subject matter experts and teachers of the blind and visually impaired to ensure that both scientific and pedagogical needs were being met.  They then explored the integration of various auditory display techniques and ended up with a mix of data sonification, narration, and environmental sounds. The team put together a sample of five to six sonification examples for each data set, then surveyed a group of blind, visually impaired and sighted adults and students with science and non-science backgrounds. The survey’s purpose was to ask which sounds and which approaches might work best for both sighted and visually impaired listeners.

“We asked, for example, which of these sounds do you think best represents gases coming in and out of the ocean. The feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of a breathing sound,” said Bower. “As listeners will hear in the first example below that deals with carbon dioxide exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, the breathing sound, with narration explaining what to expect, really brings the data to life.”

Accessible Oceans is a pilot and feasibility study for a museum exhibit that would introduce the broader public to what it’s like to experience ocean data through sound. At the end of this two-year project, the team intends to submit another proposal to design and build an exhibit that make ocean data come alive in a new and accessible way.

“As we’ve been working on this project, we’ve come to realize that to engage more people in science, technology, engineering and math, we can appeal to their ears as well as their eyes,” added Bower. “And I’m determined to help make science as accessible as possible for everyone.”


To hear more about Amy Bower’s work as an oceanographer and her exploration of sonification, tune into this episode of The Science of Ocean Sounds, Tumble Science Podcast for Kids.








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