Munching Data

I spent last week “hiding out” in San Francisco at an Acoustical Society of America (ASA) meeting. I’ve been a member and attending these meetings for about fifteen years and have seen both the society and the inquiry evolve much since the late 1990’s.

The field of acoustics comes in many flavors. If you think of all the ways sound, or acoustical energy is examined and used in our lives your thoughts may circumscribe the fields of biomedical imaging, architecture, speech communication, music, vibration, acoustical oceanography, physical acoustics, ultrasonics, and my field of animal bioacoustics.

My animal-bio (AB) colleagues and associates study how bats, crickets, birds, rhinos, elephants, fish, and cetaceans use and interact with sound; and since the public became particularly interested in the topic, how human noises interfere with animal acoustical interactions. Since the highly publicized Navy sonar-associated beaked whale strandings in 2000 most public attention (and thus most public funding) has been directed toward noise impacts on marine mammals. While there were a few AB papers on other taxa, the bulk of our AB sessions orbited around whales, dolphins, and seals.

One of the shortcomings of scientific inquiry is that the methodology presupposes specialization; keeping focused on a clear hypothetical trajectory so that experimental results can be presented in concise and unambiguous terms. But this Cartesian paradigm is beginning to shake apart due to a rapidly expanding profusion of open-access data.

Screenshot of Lido – CSA Ocean Sciences

Screenshot of Lido – CSA Ocean Sciences

As instruments become easier to deploy, and data storage becomes cheaper and more abundant the entire world is being fitted with sensors that provide data and outputs that are increasingly becoming available to everyone.

One sterling example is Michel Andre’s Lido (Listening to the deep ocean) project where you can explore live and archived hydrophone recordings located around the world and listen in as well as analyze the sounds you hear. A couple more tools are NOAA’s Cetacean and Sound Mapping website which provides cetacean densities and data searchable by species and location and Duke University’s Ocean Biogeographic Information System – (OBIS-SEAMAP) which maps various taxa observed around the globe. Even the OCR-WWF website with archived recordings of Arctic soundscapes from Cornell University provides a modicum of analysis (along with some really cool soundscapes!).

One of the many benefits of this expanding availability of data is that it is persuading scientists (and the public) to look at habitats and soundscapes as systems. The one who is interested in frogs can also see how crickets and rainfall play into their subject’s natural history; the one who studies whales can also look at how fish, shipping lanes, and hypoxic zones play onto their subject’s health and well-being.

But the challenging question on the floor of the ASA meeting was how to catalog and reconcile these mega-terabytes of data? With the plethora of sensors and information available we have the makings of a virtual world that can be explored by the masses from their desktop. The democratization of data allows broader questions to be asked, not driven by pedagogy and tradition but by simple curiosity.

Navigated systems like Lido and OBIS-SEAMAP are a far cry from exploring nature in the raw, but they are opening up worlds of data that just a few years back were only available to “the few and the funded.” One of the hopes expressed at the conference was that flexible data management and portrayal systems will evolve, permitting the curious to push around all of this information like modeling clay, stretching X, Y, and Z axis into histograms, waterfall displays, and data maps; allowing both casual and professional researchers to transform frequency, geography, time, and weather into visual and auditory displays that tease out larger and smaller inter-relationships otherwise not apparent to our linear, time-limited, and human-scaled perceptions.

The data is flowing, the sockets are opening. Please dig in!