What does it sound like on a particular street corner? Is there music? Are jackhammers hammering? Is there some birdsong? With "Chatty Maps"—a new project that maps 12 city "soundscapes"—you can begin to tell without ever going there.
The maps categorize the most prominent sounds in a certain place. Click on, say, Hyde Park in London, and not surprisingly the most common sound-type is "nature." Click on West 19th Street in New York, and the most common category is "human" (people talk a lot on 19th Street). The maps also cover Barcelona, Madrid, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Milan, and Rome.
Four researchers—Daniele Quercia, Luca Maria Aiello, Rossano Schifanella, and Francesco Aletta—created the maps using a two-step process. First, they went to Freesound.org, an archive of recorded city sounds, and categorized what they found. For "transport," they included motorcycle, locomotive, aircraft, and engine noises. For "nature & animals," they included chirping, barking and raining, for instance.
Then they searched Flickr's 17 million-strong photo archive from 2005 and 2015, looking for when those words (e.g. "chirping") were tagged to geolocated photos. That allowed them to say what type of noises were most prominent in each location, and also what emotion might be associated with that noise. In the taxonomy, mechanical sounds like motorbikes or jackhammers are associated with anger or fear, while sounds emanating from churches (e.g. bells) or homes (showering) are more likely associated with calm and trust.
Quercia, who's based at the University of Cambridge says the maps could be useful for planners looking to incorporate "restorative" places like parks and green spaces. "Urban planners can map the potential that different parts of the city might have. This is a way to not only map bad problematic bad sounds, but also the positive side of sounds and the qualities they might have," he says in an interview.
We've featured Quercia's work before. He developed a "happy walk" route planner with Yahoo Labs. And, using a similar method to the current research, he also developed "smellscapes" for cities. The next step, he says, is to monitor people's actual emotions as they come across happy places, smells and sounds, and so on. He's interested in incorporating data from brain scanning devices, for instance.
One day perhaps we'll have full-blown sensory maps to go with physical ones.
Cover Photo: Anton_Ivanov via Shutterstock