Data Sonification is a known field of research since the 1990s, as the great work of ICAD (the International Conference on Auditory Displays) testifies year after year since 1992. Known but, both in the worlds of data representation and data analysis, extremely secluded in its niche and mostly ignored both by academia and the public.
Why so? My journey through a Design PhD at Politecnico di Milano started with this question.
I am used to the need of explaining, not without difficulties, what my job is to a skeptical - though interested - audience of clients and students at least since 2008, when I opened Lorelei, my then boutique agency on sound branding. So I have no problem in admitting that yes, sound is a niche when it comes to having a role in today’s design or brand campaigns. Most of the people do not pay any or they pay scarce attention to the soundscape we all live immersed into, every second of our lives. Visual stimulation is utterly predominant, and we learn to use visual tools since a very young age, thus giving to visual supports an immense advantage over any other type of support for experience.
But still, having worked in sound since aged 7, I refuse to believe that that’s it, that sonification has not gained full attention because of a “natural” (or better, cultural) predominance of visualization which makes the use of any other sense less effective.
When I started working with tech startups in Singapore in 2015, the growing importance of data for anything we deal with inside and outside our jobs reached the status of an epiphany. Et voilà, the step to seriously consider Data Sonification as a viable practice and an interesting theoretical challenge became a real possibility. In 2017 I submitted a proposal for a PhD on the topic, and - quite surprisingly to me - it was accepted.
And the journey began with the main question:
What’s the problem with sonification becoming an accepted modality of interacting with data, reaching the same status - or at least getting closer - to data visualization practices?
Well as mentioned, I am aware of multiple reasons why the use of sound from marketing to branding to HCI is still something you need to justify thoroughly, and i might talk about it in another post. But in my first semester as a PhD student, starting November 2017, a quick review of available scientific literature on sonification gave me a first answer. Out of over 80 papers I read, only 4 had the possibility of actually listening online to the sonifications they describe! And out of these 4, none had been designed with a sound designer in the team. They all came from computer science labs and engineering departments, proposed and developed by IT researchers. Nothing wrong with that, but where were the designers in this debate? So yes, I though there might be a space for me out there to try to take a position on whether data and sound can, after all, be a good match.