Upstairs in St Cecilia’s concert hall are six boxes on wheels. Each box contains a small computer, amplifier, speakers, battery and a compass sensor. Playing through these boxes are sounds recorded in and around the Meadows in Edinburgh. As you move the boxes around, the sound changes. When you’ve discovered positions that you think you like, sit back, lie down, relax and wait for others to shift things. If you want to make a change, intervene…
On 5th April, field recordist and sound artist Chris Watson helped set the CitySounds project into a wider context by presenting recordings from his sound installation Inside the circle of fire: A Sheffield Sound Map. Before a large audience in the Reid Concert Hall, Chris guided us through a project that describes the sound world of the city of his birth in dynamic multichannel sound.
As Chris said: “We tend to hear everything, but we rarely listen. We live in such a noise-polluted environment.” The event was a great opportunity to focus attention on the richness of urban sounds rather than ignoring them.
The CitySounds project held two workshops on 19 February 2018, with special guest Kate Jones from University College London. The ideas for the workshops were conceived at our co-design workshop earlier this year.
Two aims that we identified for the community workshops were a) to find out what people might want to learn about nature and biodiversity in the city through sound (as well as potentially other forms of environmental monitoring and data collection) and b) to demonstrate how and what we can learn through the initial sound recordings coming from the project’s Audio Capture Devices and perhaps teach some basic skills in audio data analysis.
Our first workshop took place in the afternoon at the University of Edinburgh Informatics Forum. We had special guest Kate Jones from University College London, who presented an excellent example of learning about nature in the city through sounds — the Nature-Smart Cities project. The project brings together environmental researchers and technologists to develop the world’s first end-to-end open source system for monitoring bats, to be deployed and tested in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, east London.
Kate gave a fantastic presentation about the project, starting with the foundation of monitoring biodiversity. How might we track biodiversity in urban areas and understand its role in helping us to live safely, productively and healthily? She encouraged us to imagine the Biodiversity version of ‘Industry 4.0’ — how could cyber-physical systems, Internet of Things, networks, data-driven and adaptive decision-making machines be employed to support biodiversity conservation and help stop the rapid loss of biodiversity across the planet?
Kate and her team developed the Echo Box, which is essentially a Shazam for bats. It picks up the frequencies that bats communicate with and uses an algorithm to identify the call and provide an indication of which species has been heard. It then sends the information back to a central server and displays the information online at http://www.batslondon.com/. Fifteen Echo Boxes are installed on lamp posts around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and have been continuously monitoring bats for three months.
While the original idea for the project came from Kate’s passion for biodiversity conservation, as other people found out about the publicly-available data, they generated their own ideas from it. A group of students built an arcade machine based on the data that has become a highlight at the visitor centre, while researchers added bat data to a 3D augmented reality visualisation of park. Another group devised small 3D-printed gnomes placed around the park that people could interact with via a chatbot to find out more about bats in the park.
We were all thoroughly inspired by the incredible amount of work that went into the project and the possibilities for learning about nature through sound while also engaging a wider population with biodiversity in the city.
Simon Chapple then shared the vision for the CitySounds project and encouraged us to begin imagining all the things that we could learn through audio data. Smart sensors can recognise what is taking place in the environment, and an array of multiple sensors can work out spatially where a sound comes from. In a particular area, audio data can allow us to identify species of birds present, bat activity, volume of traffic, car accidents and more – and a wide spectrum microphone can even allow us to record mice screaming at each other!
Following Simon, Jonathan Silvertown sparked our imaginations to the possibilities of all the different creatures that are roaming around our cities and that we could potentially learn about through IoT and other technologically-advanced forms of biodiversity monitoring. He showed us the National Biodiversity Network’s Atlas of Scotland, which keeps a record of all the creatures that have been recorded in a particular area. So, from where we were in the Informatics Forum in the centre of the city, this is what we might find:
We hope that the CitySounds project will provide not only a replicable method for learning about nature through sound but also a specific insight into the Edinburgh soundscape, from nature (weather, animals, birds, insects, bats), activities (walking, cycling, playing sport, festivities), transport (traffic, car horns, trains, planes), machines, electrical and electronic devices, breaking glass, noise pollution) through to the one o’clock gun, the many incidents of fireworks and the festivals large and small that take place around the city throughout the year.
Pursuing our goal of collaborating with Edinburgh Living Landscapes and other partners to explore how soundscape data can support community engagement, education and citizen science and increase the value created by urban greenspace, we invited stakeholders and interested parties to an initial CitySounds Co-Design workshop on 9th January 2018.
We were excited to see interest from across a wide range of disciplines and organisations, with participation from Scottish Wildlife Trust, The University of Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh Council Biodiversity team, Friends of the Meadows and Bruntsfield Links (FOMBL), the Bat Conservation Trust, Greening Our Streets and New Media Scotland.
It was a great event, full of ideas and enthusiasm. Here, we briefly mention the main topics of discussion.
Exploring and understanding the data that will be captured
- The six audio monitoring devices will each record 10-second samples in rotation, focusing on biodiversity in the Meadows. The devices will operate 24/7.
- We are hoping that these will pick up birds, bats (which cannot be heard by the human ear), rain, traffic noise, etc. It will be interesting to see how many anthropogenetic sounds occur in the ultrasonic range.
- We should be able to detect bird sounds within a 50–100m range and bats within a 30m range. (Interesting fact: Bats are loud! Their signals are typically over 100 decibels)
- We are in the process of installing a WiFi access point on the 6th floor of the University Main Library, facing the Meadows.
- Data will be directly transferred via WiFi to a server—so no data will be kept on the devices themselves.
- It was pointed out that it will be important to make it as easy as possible for small biodiversity organisations to access the collected audio data, since often these have little or no resources for dealing with technical intricacies.
Community engagement actions in the project: who are we targeting and what do we want to achieve?
We are planning to organise at least three community engagement events during the course of the project:
- First data literacy workshop (open to stakeholders)
- Second data literacy workshop (open to interested groups and the public)
- A final sonic art exhibition open to the public.
We spent the last section of the workshop discussing various ideas for these events.
The two data literacy workshops
These workshops will be an opportunity to communicate with the public about acoustic data and to engage their interest in data, IoT and urban greenspaces. We discussed:
- What are we trying to achieve in the workshops?
- What issues should the workshops address?
- How can these apply in general to biodiversity monitoring?
- How can they apply to the green network across the city that Edinburgh Living Landscapes is creating?
- What is the target audience for the workshops? People already involved in biodiversity activities?
Measuring impact of biodiversity initiatives in the city
How can Edinburgh Living Landscape, FOMBL, the CEC Biodiversity team, and other interested partners use acoustic data to create evidence and evaluate the impact of their work? We are hoping to continue the monitoring after March 2018 (i.e., beyond the period of funding from OrganiCity) — having 12 months of data or more would be valuable to us and to our partners.
- FOMBL/Greening Our Street:
- Can the monitoring help identify ‘green tunnels’ through the city? This would be really valuable information for shaping future biodiversity initiatives.
- City of Edinburgh Council:
- Because it is time-consuming and expensive to collect biodiversity data, much of the information about sites across the city is out of date. It would be very useful if IoT technology could be used to get much more timely biodiversity data. Amongst other things, this would give evidence to support continued protection of those greenspaces.
The Sonic Art Exhibition
We revisited plans for the end-of-project exhibition and event and considered whether to adapt or expand it. This event is intended to be both a response to the audio assets collected by project and simultaneously a way of engaging with the public. Martin Parker explained his original conception, where six speakers would each be controlled by a location-aware app on a phone, determining what, how and when sound comes out of the speaker. In addition, the speakers would be movable, and members of the audience could arrange and re-organise the soundscape within the physical exhibition space.
Ideas that we discussed included:
- How can we build a biodiversity storytelling aspect to the sounds? Should we, for example, include information about bats as an accompaniment to the audio?
- How will we represent ultrasonic sounds to the public?
- Can we capture different times of day on speakers, so that people can hear sounds associated with the night, the morning etc.
- Should we associate sounds from different parts of the Meadows with different parts of the room?
We are still working out the best processes and activities for our two data literacy workshops and the final sonic art exhibition, so watch out for further blog posts!
Although we held a number of meetings between different partners during the inception phase of the experiment, it was only on 4th December 2017 that most of us managed to meet face-to-face in the Alt-W LAB in Edinburgh’s City Art Centre.
After a quick review of the project deliverables, milestones and schedule, Simon Chapple provided an update on the audio capture framework and plans.
Graham Stone pointed out that it will be important to be able to correctly interpret *missing* audio data, such as the absence of certain bird sounds. He suggested that one way of providing a baseline of detectability would be to play pre-recorded samples of wildlife sounds at natural levels to determine the sensitivity range of sensors.
We agreed on the importance of providing transparent information about the project to relevant stakeholders and the general public. This will be addressed in the New Year as we make more progress on understanding the technical dimensions of the project.
Finally, we discussed the fact that we have very Little time to prepare the end-of-project sound installation, and planning the content and requirements for this will have to be addressed as soon as possible.