Sonification has, over the last two decades, established itself as a growing modality for conveying information and an increasingly legitimized tool, useful in many different functional and scientific situations. It can integrate successfully into workflows for control room monitoring, scientific data exploration, and even physiotherapeutic treatment (Hermann, Hunt and Neuhoff 2011). Arguably, in any circumstance where there is (ongoing or continual) information that requires perception and/or action, sonification can play a part in its communication, either alone or as a complement to visual displays. Within the broader collection of ICAD (International Community for Auditory Displays) literature, there have been numerous advances in scientific sonification and accompanying issues of auditory stream perception, aesthetics, and usability (Grond and Hermann 2011; Vickers, Laing, Debashi and Fairfax 2014; Smith and Walker 2002; Vickers, Hogg and Warrall 2017). However, there has been relatively little attention as yet given to circumstances in which scientific data is communicated within a public sphere (Quinton, McGregor and Benyon 2016), making this a growing area of concern for sonification practitioners. What we mean here by “sonification for public engagement” is sonification that has been designed to engage a mass audience through the audible representation of (scientific or social) data, with the goal of raising awareness and allowing an everyday listener access to challenging and often “cold” information.
These kinds of sonifications have increasingly proliferated in the public domain. Recent ones, such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson, Rosetta Comet, and gravitational waves, have received widespread appeal. They are among the more salient examples of aesthetically accessible sonifications that are meant to engage the public in a particular way, with, of course, the openly political motive of trying to foster a public interest in scientific discovery. Such sonifications feature simple, engaging and reasonably familiar aesthetics that the public can readily perceive and thus engage with typically niche and difficult concepts. It is important to acknowledge that in circumstances where sonification is used as a public relations tool in this way, there is always a message underneath which serves as the guiding principle for its design, an observation made most famously in Alexandra Supper’s (2014, 2015) discussion of the legitimacy of sonification. Given Supper’s contestation that sonification has had slim success as a tool for scientific analysis, instead enjoying more sensational “public relations” value, the question we ask in this paper is, how does one design a sonic information display truly geared to the general public and deliberately designed to elicit both basic recognition and affect as well as awareness of pressing social issues?
With the increasing presence of sonification in the public domain, one of the most immediate implications is the need to rethink perceptual mappings and training as part of ongoing design developments towards involving an increasingly non-specialized audience that is more used to listening to music than to data. The visual equivalent of this would be the rise and popularity of conveying popular scientific/quantitative data through accessible and visually appealing infographics and data visualizations. For this reason, it is useful to explore the unique ways in which sonification operates in the context of public relations analogous to the way visualizations operate in the public sphere as accessible shortcuts to complex data or information. This paper will chart a practice-based research approach to a mapping strategy meant to engage the public with issues surrounding air quality in cities across Canada. Sonification, in this case, serves as a tool to communicate a broader message of mitigating emissions to the public, for citizen health, as well as for climate change. In the following sections we introduce a model for air pollution sonification for a general listening public, specifically designed for “hearability” and “intelligibility” (Walker and Kramer 2005; Barrass 2003, 2012) as well as engagement and shift in social awareness in relation to current issues. Subsequently, we present a brief description and the results from two usability evaluation focus groups.