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Crowd sourcing soundscapes and noise levels

An EPSRC funded Partnerships for Public Engagement Project - ref EP/E06552X/1 'IMPRINtS - Internet and Mobile technologies for a Public Role in Science'. 2007-9.

Community-based environmental monitoring

Noise Levels vs Soundscapes

Soundscapes, like landscapes, have and important role in our lives. Just like a view from an office or bedroom window a soundscape can help make us feel comfortable, productive or happy or make us feel uneasy or distracted. There will always be some sound in our environment be it for example the rustle of leaves, bird song, distant traffic, clock chimes, computers, reverberant spaces, music, crowds, neighbours or road-works. Without soundscapes our lives would lack the contextual references that help contribute to the quality of our lives / though clearly there's fine line between welcome everyday bustle and noise nuisance. Getting the balance right is a challenge for urban/rural planning, development and construction and a challenge for how we as individuals chose to spend each day. Traditionally, outdoor sound is all about environmental noise and noise levels, but increasingly researchers are looking more holistically at all sounds, both positive and negative.

This project sort to raise public awareness of soundscapes and our relationship with them by inviting people of all ages to take part in a large national survey to measure and characterise the huge variety of soundscapes in Britain that effect different people in different places in different ways. We formed a 'citizen observatory' using smart phones and other mobile recording devices.  Nowadays many people have smart mobile phones that can run applications such address books, mp3 players and games. Relative to the most expensive desktop computers of only a few years ago, most modern mobile phones can be considered as very powerful multimedia computing devices. One potential application of a mobile phone is as a quite sophisticated sound sampling and analysing device. Indeed, there are many apps for noise level measurement that can be downloaded.  Also these days many people have access to desktop PCs linked to the internet via always on broadband connections that can in-turn be easily linked to their mobile phones via USB cables, Infrared and Bluetooth.

The project exploited these new technologies to enlighten, engage and empower the public whilst also being novel, timely and enabling research capable of gathering an unprecedented amount of important data from numerous participants spread across the world. This type of community-based environmental monitoring is becoming an increasingly common research methodology.

Members of the public who went to the web site registered as a participant and downloaded free software to install on their mobile phones. Such software allowed participants to sample and give opinion data on the variety of soundscapes that play an important role in their everyday lives; be they workplaces, during travel, when shopping, at home or when relaxing at the weekend. We asked the public to make a series 10 second samples of different everyday soundscapes and answer some simple questions. These include a brief one or two sentence discussion of each soundscape and some associated ordinal ratings for location quality, soundscape quality, eventfulness, exciting-ness, pleasantness, tranquillity and user activity. These soundscapes were then uploaded to user pcs to be collected and reconciled at a central server and hence presented visually and aurally on a Google map. By studying correlations (or lack there of) between objective acoustic parameters and subjective data, we hope to better understand the public's relationships with soundscapes and enfranchise the public with a better awareness of their acoustic environments and the role science can play in improving these and hence quality of life.

Working with SEPOINT Manchester the technologies and procedures of the project has been prototyped in schools by engaging students in Key Stage 4 activities relating to environmental science. With the aid of carefully constructed practical lessons students utilised the software on mobile phones alongside other sound recording devices to investigate their daily soundscape and their relationship with it.

Research Assistant: Charles Mydlarz

Principal Investigator: Dr Ian Drumm

Co-Investigator: Professor Trevor Cox