The CitySounds project held two workshops on 19 February 2018, with special guest Kate Jones from University College London. The ideas for the workshops were conceived at our co-design workshop earlier this year.
Two aims that we identified for the community workshops were a) to find out what people might want to learn about nature and biodiversity in the city through sound (as well as potentially other forms of environmental monitoring and data collection) and b) to demonstrate how and what we can learn through the initial sound recordings coming from the project’s Audio Capture Devices and perhaps teach some basic skills in audio data analysis.
Our first workshop took place in the afternoon at the University of Edinburgh Informatics Forum. We had special guest Kate Jones from University College London, who presented an excellent example of learning about nature in the city through sounds — the Nature-Smart Cities project. The project brings together environmental researchers and technologists to develop the world’s first end-to-end open source system for monitoring bats, to be deployed and tested in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, east London.
Kate gave a fantastic presentation about the project, starting with the foundation of monitoring biodiversity. How might we track biodiversity in urban areas and understand its role in helping us to live safely, productively and healthily? She encouraged us to imagine the Biodiversity version of ‘Industry 4.0’ — how could cyber-physical systems, Internet of Things, networks, data-driven and adaptive decision-making machines be employed to support biodiversity conservation and help stop the rapid loss of biodiversity across the planet?
Kate and her team developed the Echo Box, which is essentially a Shazam for bats. It picks up the frequencies that bats communicate with and uses an algorithm to identify the call and provide an indication of which species has been heard. It then sends the information back to a central server and displays the information online at http://www.batslondon.com/. Fifteen Echo Boxes are installed on lamp posts around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and have been continuously monitoring bats for three months.
While the original idea for the project came from Kate’s passion for biodiversity conservation, as other people found out about the publicly-available data, they generated their own ideas from it. A group of students built an arcade machine based on the data that has become a highlight at the visitor centre, while researchers added bat data to a 3D augmented reality visualisation of park. Another group devised small 3D-printed gnomes placed around the park that people could interact with via a chatbot to find out more about bats in the park.
We were all thoroughly inspired by the incredible amount of work that went into the project and the possibilities for learning about nature through sound while also engaging a wider population with biodiversity in the city.
Simon Chapple then shared the vision for the CitySounds project and encouraged us to begin imagining all the things that we could learn through audio data. Smart sensors can recognise what is taking place in the environment, and an array of multiple sensors can work out spatially where a sound comes from. In a particular area, audio data can allow us to identify species of birds present, bat activity, volume of traffic, car accidents and more – and a wide spectrum microphone can even allow us to record mice screaming at each other!
Following Simon, Jonathan Silvertown sparked our imaginations to the possibilities of all the different creatures that are roaming around our cities and that we could potentially learn about through IoT and other technologically-advanced forms of biodiversity monitoring. He showed us the National Biodiversity Network’s Atlas of Scotland, which keeps a record of all the creatures that have been recorded in a particular area. So, from where we were in the Informatics Forum in the centre of the city, this is what we might find:
We hope that the CitySounds project will provide not only a replicable method for learning about nature through sound but also a specific insight into the Edinburgh soundscape, from nature (weather, animals, birds, insects, bats), activities (walking, cycling, playing sport, festivities), transport (traffic, car horns, trains, planes), machines, electrical and electronic devices, breaking glass, noise pollution) through to the one o’clock gun, the many incidents of fireworks and the festivals large and small that take place around the city throughout the year.