ISU graphic design professor recognized by scientists for sonic interpretations of data

12/07/15

AMES, Iowa — Research data often are represented visually through charts, graphs and tables. One Iowa State University professor has taken the unusual step of converting scientific measurements into sound so researchers can not only see but also hear their data—an approach that has garnered the attention of an international limnological research organization.

Graphic design Assistant Professor Alex Braidwood presents his Buoy listening project at the GLEON 17 All-Hands Meeting in Chuncheon, South Korea, in October.

"It's all about presenting the data in a new and interesting way," said Alex Braidwood, an assistant professor of graphic design in the ISU College of Design.

Braidwood's own research investigates the relationship between people and the sounds that surround them. He has developed a number of "listening projects" that allow participants to interact with and within an environment using modified hearing-protection headphones that transform ambient sounds into a personal "noise composition." The goal is to encourage people to focus on listening, he said.

This past June, Braidwood spent two weeks as an artist-in-residence at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory Regents Resource Center, a biological field station and nature preserve near West Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa. In a process known as sonification, Braidwood took environmental data from sensors on a research buoy in the lake and created a musical composition.

Specifically, he programmed a system to perform audio based on values for water temperature, pH level, dissolved oxygen saturation, dissolved oxygen in milligrams per liter and carbon dioxide levels. Using a digital synthesizer, he assigned different sounds and control parameters to each of the values, which are collected by the buoy every 10 minutes.

The system converted the 10-minute data intervals into 1-second sound intervals accompanied by a field recording of environmental sounds (wind, waves, birds, etc.) taken near the lake one day at dawn. The result is a 13-minute "song" in which the listener can hear the changes in data from the lake.

"Presenting the data as an audio composition makes this information accessible to a variety of audiences that extend beyond the scientific community. It can provide a listener with a connection to a body of water that needs to be both studied and protected," Braidwood said.

GLEON conference attendees listen to a live version of the Buoy project with current data from the research buoy located in West Lake Okoboji.

Ana Moralis, another Iowa Lakeside Lab researcher, shared Braidwood's project with representatives of GLEON (Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network), an international network of scientists and research stations that share ecological data on lakes.

A doctoral candidate in ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Iowa State, Moralis completed a GLEON fellowship last year. She was at Lakeside doing research into algal blooms, but she recognized the opportunity Braidwood's project represented.

"We're always looking for new ways to communicate our science in a more accessible and clear way," Moralis said. "Different people are able to interpret data in different ways. Some people are very visual, but some may really benefit from being able to hear the data. You can hear things that you wouldn’t normally see as well."

Braidwood was invited to present his Buoy project at GLEON's annual international conference in Chuncheon, South Korea, in October. Along with a talk, he also presented a research poster, which can be viewed on Instagram. And the organization accepted his application for membership, making Braidwood the first member who identifies primarily as an artist in a network mainly composed of scientists.

"There is a huge push from different groups of people to find new ways of communicating science," Braidwood said. "So this concept of art and science was really well received by a large portion of the GLEON community."

Through connections made at the Chuncheon conference, Braidwood is expanding the Buoy project to include audio tracks created with data from GLEON-affiliated research stations in Canada and Ireland.

Next summer, Braidwood will teach a two-week course in acoustic ecology at Iowa Lakeside Lab and continue his work with the research buoy. He also has accepted a position as co-director of the Iowa Lakeside Lab Artist-In-Residence Program for 2015-2016 and will take over as the director in fall 2016.

Braidwood will be sending out a call to find more artists and scientists interested in creating work like his own. He hopes to expand the popularity of interpreting lake data through art.

"Artists and scientists are both just asking questions," Braidwood said. "We’re just going about it in different ways."

Contacts:
Alex Braidwood, Graphic Design, (313) 595-3155, abr@iastate.edu, @formalplay on Twitter and Instagram
Ana Moralis, Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, (515) 294-6363, ammora@iastate.edu
Patrick Budding, Design Communications, (641) 990-8293, pbudding@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289, hsauer@iastate.edu

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