Sonifying History using Open Data Kit

Sound sounds a lot different when you take the time to listen. I am learning this each time I attempt ‘field work’ (which is just another way to say when I actually go outside and do research with sound). On a cool October evening several weeks ago, I drove out to the Maker Space North community centre in Ottawa. I had no idea this industrially-hip building, nestled between Hintonburg and Little Italy even existed. Everything was a juxtaposition: a hip cafe next to a worker loading slabs of plywood into a van. A bike shop on one end and some young guys doing warm-up stretches on the other. I was here for the Ottawa City Woodshop: a small, yet well-equipped place “inspired by the region’s rich heritage as a booming lumber town” for woodworking enthusiasts to explore their hobby. I was here to record sounds of woodworking.

OttCityWoodOutside

Sound and Memory

I have always been interested in sound. One of the most meaningful memories I hold – one that occasionally revisits me – is the distant sound of a train travelling past my hometown of Napanee. I could hear it cutting through the cool fall air and blowing its horn. But it was not an assaulting sound. It was distant and close enough that I could fall asleep listening to it. No other sound aside from the rare walker’s footsteps and occasional cough. The town was silent. The train was my lullaby.

I believe that memory and sound are intimately entangled in history. My master’s research explores the relationship between sound and memory through the industrial past of Pembroke, Ontario. I will create an online interactive map of Pembroke with nodes containing playable sounds, from machinery to voice. Obviously, then, this project will involve interviewing former workers from the 1950s onwards during the period of a general decline in Pembroke’s industry. But where to begin! Well, why not start recording sounds? The wonderful people at Ottawa City Woodshop allowed me to come in an quietly go about my business recording one of their nightly sessions.

Ottcity

Collecting Data

This past summer I played around with Open Data Kit (ODK), a mobile data collection framework. ODK works through your mobile device using a customized form. I created a form that allows me to collect sound through my Nexus 5 (I use RecForge Pro II as my default recording software rather than the stock microphone software).

ODK uses several processes that function together. I am working on a full tutorial write-up for ODK, but for now see the ODK website for detailed information. In general, you (1) create a form that (2) structures the Android app where you collect data which you (3) export and send to a server (ODK Aggregate) created through Google’s developer dashboard. I have posted a list of resources at the end of this post for my personal forms, downloads, etc. My server is https://masters-research.appspot.com.

Since ODK is open source, users can create a variety of forms to collect any sort of data imaginable. You can take photos, video, capture audio, ask multiple choice questions, input text, etc. You can mix and match all of these and set certain questions to repeat. For my form, I set a repeat at the end of each group. Each group is a recording. So you begin by swiping. Then you select record or upload a pre-made recording. Then you swipe again to tag the recording with metadata (I left this as an open text box). Lastly, you swipe yet again and the form asks if you want to finish or add another group (i.e. another recording).

With my form ready to go and my phone charged to 100%, I headed to the Woodshop. I then recorded workers as they went about their tasks. I recorded hammers, saws, sanders, and general clammer. The form worked smoothly and I was able to reduce a lot of distortion through RecForge, visually monitoring the input of sound using the built-in reader, disabling gain control, etc. After one hour, I had loads of great material.

Taskscape and Sound

Now what did I learn from this experience in field research? Well, for starters, I learned that I have been misspelling and mispronouncing ‘band saw’ my entire life (apparently it’s not ‘ban saw’). Oh, but you want to know the more relevant lessons…

The first glaring issue was historical representation. How could I present history through sounds recorded in the present? Sounds are gone, are they not? They leave no immediate, sightly impression on landscape. I will have to explore representation more. But what memory can we have of sound, not mechanically reproduced like the photograph (no pun intended). Let’s move through representation a bit.

At the advice of my supervisor, Shawn Graham, I had just re-read archaeologist Tim Ingold’s article “The Temporality of the Landscape.” Ingold argues that landscape is neither neutral backdrop nor a cognitive or symbolic ordering of space but a “testimony to and record of” all past generation who have dwelt in it. The landscape tells a story about the people who once lived there since we cannot know their perspectives. Through their tasks, they rework the landscape. However, we are not observers but participants in landscape: “If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was ‘inscribed’ in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking.”

Ingold’s article was pertinent. I thought how sound is thus part of the landscape since it arises from the tasks we perform. Sure, I could tell you from any historical theory class that speech – through voice – is a complex and calculated performance. But so is pushing wood through a saw. These are deliberate and important tasks that ultimately produce sound. Speech is sound produced by people. Following Ingold, however, people also perform sound through tasks, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life.”

I am in a good place. I am thinking about sound entangled in tasks and thus memory. Where I need to tread carefully is how I represent this understanding of environment in my map. The task lies ahead of me: as dweller, I have work to do.

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