Audio Mapping: The New Data Frontier


Picture of impervious surface audio map interface

How can we experience a place beyond spatial visualization? Emily Cohen, an urban planner and ecological designer, and Jocelyn Frank, an audio artist and media consultant, have an idea: audio mapping. The two received a strong endorsement when they presented their audio mapping concept at the recent Listening to the City conference hosted by the MIT Co-Lab. CDD staff helped set the stage for a group exercise by providing a brief historical and demographic overview of The Port.

After discussing the rise of podcast listeners and the public’s increased reliance on GPS, Cohen and Frank sought to fuse elements from their professional experience in order to tell the story of places in a different way. “With the rise of tools like Google maps telling people where to go, people aren’t as familiar with reading maps, but mapping by professionals is a tool used more now than ever,” explains Cohen. “We wanted to come up with a concept that would translate mapping to the average person and tell the story of a place in a different way.” 

Cohen and Frank tested their concept with the assistance of Jay Gregory, who helped design a map that uses sound to indicate the density of impervious surfaces in Cambridge and a map that represents the dominant birdsongs in each state throughout the U.S. 

In addition to providing a resource for visually impaired individuals, audio mapping seeks to tell stories that aren’t currently conveyed through traditional, i.e. visual, mapping. Cohen lists several examples of community elements that audio mapping can capture: neighborhood demographics through the voices of non-English speakers, trends of local business ownership in specific districts through sound, canopy cover density through differing noise levels. Traditional maps take elements that exist in the three-dimensional world and depict them visually in a two-dimensional space. Audio mapping seeks to take those same elements that exist in the physical world, but depict them through sound. 

Audio mapping allows us to tell the stories of our cities in new and interesting ways. Cohen and Frank hope that these stories will promote democratic engagement and ultimately serve as catalysts for social change.