Street noise isn't generally a category-one issue for city governments, and they don't put a lot of resources into measuring it.

Could citizens do a better job?

NoiseTube, an app and web site developed in France and Belgium, gives a sense of what's possible.

Allowing users to record and map noise in their neighborhood, it shows how citizen networks could complement government-run efforts, or perhaps replace them.

"By turning mobile phones into environmental sensors, we eliminate the need for expensive measuring equipment," Zaman says.

2014-06-03

Co.Exist

With NoiseTube, Citizens Can Now Map Noise Pollution In Their Cities

With a smartphone in hand, urban residents can document a dangerous kind of pollution that doesn't get enough attention--even though it's around us all the time.

Street noise isn't generally a category-one issue for city governments, and they don't put a lot of resources into measuring it. The most they'll do is a set up temporary sound-level meters at certain locations, then generalize the readings over wider areas.

The method is not only relatively expensive, it doesn't even produce particularly detailed results, says Jesse Zaman, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium.

Could citizens do a better job? The challenge, after all, isn't technological. Everything needed to record and map street noise is on a smartphone. The problem is distribution: Getting the sensors to enough places, so you can start building a map.

NoiseTube, an app and website developed in France and Belgium, gives a sense of what's possible. Allowing users to record and map noise in their neighborhood, it shows how citizen networks (like this one started in Spain) could complement government-run efforts, or perhaps replace them.

"By turning mobile phones into environmental sensors, we eliminate the need for expensive measuring equipment," Zaman says.

So far, 2,700 users have registered to participate at the NoiseTube site, with up to 10,000 people downloading the app (both Android and iOS). There are online and offline modes. In online, you just open the app and forget about it. It automatically uploads sound level data as you wander about. In offline mode, it stores the data on the phone, and you have to upload it later.

In either case, though, you can annotate as you go, tagging streets with descriptions and comments. That means you can make a time-stamped record of particularly noisy spots, in case you want to complain or convince.

Campaign groups in Belgium and Romania have used the maps to fight cases for noise reduction measures. But Zaman hopes to improve the flexibility of the system further, so groups can specify their own campaigns and derive data more easily. "The framework will automatically orchestrate these campaigns to ensure they result in qualitative data," he says.

More broadly, NoiseTube shows the potential for cheap sensors and apps to broaden environmental sensing in cities, especially around under-acknowledged problems like noise pollution, which don't generally get a lot of resources.

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3 Comments

  • Calibration is a MAJOR issue, I've used the app and it's easily +/- 7 dB from my trusty SLM. Recent NIOSH study at looked into accuracy of smartphone apps and NoiseTube didn't make the cut.

  • What a promising app to help our community fight a local train maintenance yard that has been defying a federal court order.

    That said, I tried the app on my iPhone 5S and can't seem to get past the "Uploading" measurements to server part, even when uploading a recording of 5 seconds or less. It just sits there and does nothing after a few minutes. The cancel button doesn't work either. Shutting down the app is the only way to start over.

    Perhaps calibrating would help, but I can't seem to find where I can do that when that window pops up.

    Can anyone help please?

  • Jesse Zaman

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for letting us know! The issue should be fixed right now. It was a silly database issue caused by the high amount of tracks recently created.

    P.S. Calibration is not done in-app, it is done by us (or other volunteers) in an audio chamber.

    Kind regards,

    Jesse Zaman