Participatory soundscape sensing – joint paper with Dr Chunming Li

One of the lovely aspects of scientific research is its international dimension – the opportunity to collaborate with people from different places, cultures, and necessarily practices and points of view.

PSSonline-CMLiDuring 2017, Dr Chnming Li, of the Institute of Urban Environment of the Chinese Academy of Science, was a visiting researcher in ExCiteS. Dr Li research is on participatory sensing and the development of sensors and applications for the urban environment. We collaborated on a paper that described the Participatory Soundscape Sensing project that he is developing, with an app on Android mobile phones, called SPL Meter, that is used to carry out the participatory sensing.

One demonstration that culture matter is in the app request for classification of sound as “harmonious” – a qualification of the sound in the right place, such as traffic noise on the road, or birds in the park. This is a quality that I haven’t encountered in studies in Europe or USA.

The paper is: “Li, C., Liu, Y., and Haklay, M., 2018, Participatory soundscape sensing, Landscape and Urban Planning 173: 64-69

Here is the abstract of the paper, and a link to the paper itself:

“Soundscape research offers new ways to explore the acoustic environment and potentially address challenges. A comprehensive understanding of soundscape characteristics and quality requires efficient data collection and analysis methods. This paper describes Participatory Soundscape Sensing (PSS), a worldwide soundscape investigation and evaluation project. We describe the calibration method for sound pressure levels (SPL) measured by mobile phone, analyze the PSS’s data temporal-spatial distribution characteristics, and discuss the impact of the participants’ age and gender on the data quality. Furthermore, we analyze the sound comfort level relationships
with each class of land use, sound sources, subjective evaluation, sound level, sound harmoniousness, gender, and age using over a year of shared data. The results suggest that PSS has distinct advantages in enhancing the amount and coverage of soundscape data. The PSS data distribution is closely related to the temporal pattern of the human work-rest schedule, population density, and the level of cyber-infrastructure. Adults (19–40 years old) are higher-quality data providers, and women exhibit better performance with respect to data integrity than men. Increasing the proportion of natural source sounds and reducing the proportion of humanmade sources of sound is expected to enhance the sound comfort level. A higher proportion of sound harmoniousness
leads to higher sound comfort, and the higher proportion of subjective evaluation sound level does not lead to decreased sound comfort. We suggest that the crowdsourcing data with participatory sensing will provide a new perspective in soundscape investigation, evaluation, and planning.”

The paper is available on ScienceDirect or also here


NESCent meeting on anthropogenic sensory stimuli & evolution (noise, light, ecology, people & citizen science)

In citizen science, you always learn new things, and one of the aspects of this area that I like most is the cross-over between different areas of science. By learning about citizen science projects, you also learn about current research activities in Astronomy, Ecology, Conservation, Environmental Science and many other areas.

Some occasions, however, provide an opportunity to explore things in a deeper and more concentrated way. The catalyst meeting in the US National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, NC, on anthropogenic sensory stimuli as drivers of evolution was such event. The meeting was organised by Caren Cooper (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) Jesse Barber (Boise State University) and Clint Francis (California Polytechnic State University) and they assembled an outstanding group of researchers for it, with diverse backgrounds including ecology, astronomy, geography, social science and citizen science. So ‘anthropogenic sensory stimuli as drivers of evolution‘ translates to 4 and a bit busy days of concentrated work on research questions that link sound and noise; light and darkness; animals and wildlife; and citizen science. In particular, the meeting explored the scientific issues of light and noise pollution on humans and other animals (with some attention to birds and insects in particular because of expertise of participants) on the one hand, and thinking in what ways citizen science activities can be included to understand and manage these issues on the other.

In many academic meetings, most of the time is dedicated to tell other people ‘what have I done’ and even if the aim is to develop something from the meeting (say, a book), still most of the time is dedicated to the pattern: presentation, Q&A, presentation, Q&A … with discussion and further discoveries during breaks, dinners or over a drink. Workshops where new directions are explored, are commonly restricted to a day or two, which doesn’t give enough time to explore issues in depth, especially in situations were the participants are not familiar to one another. By the time you get to know people from different area of research, the meeting is over! Only rarely there are longer meetings of 4 or 5 days – so far in my academic career, I attended one – a European Science Foundation exploratory workshop on the internet of things and sustainability almost 3 years ago. The NEScent catalyst meeting belongs to the latter group of long and detailed workshops.

The workshop brought together people who are researching how to understand and model night light or noise at global and local scales, as well as people with experience in citizen science, and experts in ecology, evolution and biodiversity with an interest in the impact of light and noise. To start the discussion, we have used the framework of ‘programme logic model‘ and considered the range of long term impacts of academic and citizen science research, and what sort of research questions can be addressed. The set of questions range from considering social impacts, perceptions, health – with some potential causal chains emerging.

The synthesis work explored how to integrate different areas of research – from concepts to methodologies to data. NESCent meeting

After setting up the general model, we set out to work in groups – and at this stage the group was split between those who focus on social science and citizen science projects, and those that are more focused on evolutionary biology and ecology. By focusing on the development of specific models and aiming to start seeing how concepts in each area match, it was possible to identify gaps. It was especially fascinating to see how people shared their knowledge and provided to each other short introductions about their research areas. For example, I have learned a lot about the concepts of coupled human-nature systems and how it is linked/subsumed in social-ecological systems. An example for the synthesis that can happen in such a workshop is the expansion of the later concept to “social, ecological and evolutionary systems”. Another group explored what is possible to discover from data that is already available and used in different projects.

The workshop also provided hands-on opportunity to explore how to measure darkness, using the ‘loss of night‘ app, as well as ‘Globe at night‘ and having the researchers that are leading these projects, Connie Walker and Chris Kyba, provided more understanding of the activities and the way the information is collected.

The outcomes of the workshop will be academic papers and research projects that will emerge in the near future – and a network of researchers with much better understanding of each other area.

Noise modelling and public access

The new noise maps for England are yet another example of how environmental information is presented to the public in ways that do not make sense, and, I suspect, alienate rather than include people in understanding the state of their environment.

A few weeks ago, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) release their modelled noise maps for main urban areas of England. There is no doubt about the popular interest in these maps – the site collapsed on the first day of publicity due to demand, and the message ‘Due to the popularity of the site we are currently experiencing very heavy load’ is on display.  This also happened to the Environment Agency when they released their ‘What’s in your backyard?’ and flood maps in 1998.

Yet, the maps are as difficult to understand as the previous version of the London noise maps that were released in 2004 (see image below from the now defunct site).

Defra London Noise Maps 2004

In the new maps, the maps are smaller in size than the London test site (occupying just 29.2% of the screen at 1024×768). They are either too generalised (Rail noise) or are detailed but without street names and landmarks (Roads), and, although noise is experienced as a combination of the impacts from industry, air, rail and road, the site gives no option of seeing all the layers together!

While the site makes it clear that the data is just modelled and was produced for strategic purposes, the message that ‘Users are strongly encouraged to read the explanatory information’ is not immediately visible – you need to scroll down to see it! Furthermore, the site does not explain what this ‘strategic assessment’ is – strategy of whom? For what end?

I do have sympathy with the designers, and I know from personal experience how difficult it is to display this information with all the political and organisational pressures, but without end-user testing and improvements the release of this information in such an inaccessible form can lead people to feel even more disenfranchised about environmental information…