You might know what the U.S.-Mexico border looks like – but do you know what it sounds like?

Using a map of the existing barriers between the U.S. and Mexico that our data team created, we worked together to sonically represent the presence – and absence – of border barriers in a few different ways.

First, to convert spatial data into sound, we determined when notes should be played.

We calculated the distance between the beginning of the border and where each segment of the fenced border began, as well as the length of that segment. We chose a speed at which we would move along the border (10 miles a second), then converted those distances to time. For example, a 10-mile-long segment of fence that begins 20 miles from the start of the border would start playing at 2 seconds, and the note would last for one second.

We also came up with different sounds to represent the various types of barriers along the border.

So go ahead, click play.

While you’re listening, picture yourself flying low over the U.S.-Mexico border, starting in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, and ending nearly 2,000 miles to the east near Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico.

The lower note/melody represents tall pedestrian fence, often 10 to 20 feet high. Higher-pitched piano plinks represent shorter fence designed to stop vehicles, but not people. An airy keyboard drone signals gaps in the fence.

You can hear a stripped-down version of this song in our episode “Up against the wall.” It relies on the same principles using three basic elements: the two alternating synth lines and a drum sample. This, I found, partnered better with host Al Letson’s voice in the first segment of the episode.  

Note: We’ve tried to help out listeners with a little stereo separation in both pieces. So if you’re listening on headphones, you’ll be able to pick out the “pedestrian fence” on the left and the “vehicle fencing” on the right.

This story was edited by Julia B. Chan.

Jim Briggs can be reached at jbriggs@revealnews.org, and Michael Corey can be reached at mcorey@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @jimbriggs3 and @mikejcorey.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Michael Corey is Reveal's senior data editor. He leads a team of data journalists who seek to distill large datasets into compelling and easily understandable stories using the tools of journalism, statistics and programming. His specialties include mapping, the U.S.-Mexico border, scientific data and working with remote sensing. Corey's work has been honored with an Online Journalism Award, an Emmy Award, a Polk Award, an IRE Medal and other national awards. He previously worked for the Des Moines Register and graduated from Drake University. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.