In December, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Autodesk convened a workshop at Autodesk Pier 9 in San Francisco to explore the intersection of sensor journalism and the art of data sonification. Artists in residence, technologists and journalists gathered to explore the emerging practice of creating custom electronic sensors to measure the environment, and turn that data into sound as a means of storytelling and engaging the public.

Scott Kildall helps a participant assemble his circuit.Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal

The workshop organized by Autodesk’s Scott Kildall and Reveal’s Sam Ward, gave an overview of the practice of sensor journalism and sonification. Kildall and Ward highlighted projects such as Reveal senior data editor Michael Corey’s work illustrating seismic activity in Oklahoma through sound and WNYC’s Harlem Heat Project, which take data beyond static charts and graphs. Translating the data to sound gives listeners a new way to approach the information, leveraging the ear’s ability to detect a wide range of tones and volumes.

Workshop participants build their circuits.Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal Credit: Sam Ward/Reveal

Participants quickly dove into hands-on work, assembling circuits based on Kildall’s project, Sonaqua. In that project, Kildall designed custom sensors to measure water quality by testing the electrical conductivity of the water. The more metals or minerals dissolved in a water sample, the higher its conductivity, which may suggest pollution. The sensors Kildall designed respond to the conductivity level by emitting a tone through a small speaker; higher-pitched tones indicating a purer sample than lower notes.

Once the circuits were complete, the room was rapidly filled with squealing samples. Participants tested them on water samples they brought from home, as well as samples collected by Kildall from across the world.

Scott Kildall brought water samples he collected from around the world for attendees to test their circuits on.Credit: Blue Bergen/Autodesk Credit: Blue Bergen/Autodesk

The workshop ended with a discussion on what it takes to create a successful project like this at scale, and the potential for these types of projects to engage the public around topics such as water quality and environmental pollution.

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Sam Ward is a former senior digital producer for Reveal, where he oversees the web team. He has years of experience producing creative digital media projects for Oregon Public Broadcasting, PBS, ITVS and the Smithsonian, and he has managed projects for funders such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and Annenberg Media. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ward is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.