Monitoring and analyzing data with sound: MediaMath’s audio logo and the Bidder Moog Project

// 07.24.2014 // Data

Generally, if you need to analyze your data, you’ll pull up an Excel spreadsheet or the reports section of your statistic package and look at line graphs, scatter plots, pie charts, etc. Sometimes even in 3D. Those tools do the job, but did you know that there is a whole different way to monitor your data that doesn’t require looking at the screen, and can even add an emotional aspect to your information? It’s an essentially unknown field called “data sonification.”

The first question I always get when I mention data sonification is “huh?.” The next is always “why?” In this blog post, I’ll try to answer both of those questions.

Question #1 – Huh?

Data sonification is what my neuroscientist friend calls “cross modal association”. In our case, that means making something sound like what it looks like.

My favorite example, of course, is the T-Mobile ring tone (for those who don’t know, I’m the composer of that ear worm). In reality, it’s an algorithm – I assigned middle C to the gray squares, and the major third (E) to the pink “T”. The astute will notice (at least in the USA) that the audio logo and the visual logo are reversed, but I blame that on the ad agency…

The MediaMath audio logo is also a simple association of the number of syllables in the name, arranged with the intent to relax clients when they hear it.

(Thanks to our CEO Joe Z for commissioning the audio logo.)

What does this have to do with real data you ask?

Mapping your data’s emotions

Step one in turning data into sound is determining how to map parameters against pitch, volume, time, and emotions. Yes, your data can have an emotion. If you don’t believe me, think about what happens in an emergency room when the heart rate monitor hits zero. As soon as that flat line appears the tone spikes, and all hell breaks loose. If that’s not emotional, I don’t know what is.

OK – so mapping the data, let’s get to a real example from MediaMath.

Bidder Moog

For MediaMath’s internal hackathon, Matt Lindsey and I built a data sonifier for our bidders, the servers that manage the realtime bidding for all of our advertisers. We called our project the “Bidder Moog.” It is a simple tone generator, that increases harmonic content as spending increases, and decreases harmonic content when spending decreases. Sounds simple enough, and like something you could easily do with a line graph, but here’s the thing – you don’t have to be looking at your screen to know if your spending is getting better or crapping out.


Question #2 – Why?

Humans process sound on a preconscious level (not subconscious, that’s a different beast). Sound drives our attention. If the birds are chirping, then everything’s fine and you’re daydreaming away. But if you hear the crack of a stick and the birds go quiet, the hair will stand up on the back of your neck, and you start paying attention. Same with that flat line in a hospital – no one notices the beeps, but that single steady tone brings chaos.

For a more complex example, which could be an extension of Bidder Moog, we can investigate the use of melody and map bids made against bids won.

Win a bid, and an ascending three note melody plays. As you win more, add some instruments. Eventually the drums kick in, and while you’re having coffee in the next room, your toes start tapping to all the bids you’re winning – it’s an awesome morning at MediaMath.

Then, suddenly, you hear your melody sliding downward. The instruments change tone. The harmonies go minor, and you know immediately to get back to your desk, put down the coffee and ask your computer “WTF?” After some tweaking to your campaigns, your melody starts ascending again, harmonies change, the beat kicks back in, and you’re off to lunch. (Thanks to Walt Howard for inspiring this scenario.)

Data sonification at MediaMath is still in its infancy, but the potential for further exploration is huge. To date, MediaMath has been quite supportive of these experiments. As we gather and analyze increasing amounts of data, developing alternate methods for our clients to interpret that data has the potential to create yet another competitive advantage – and you know that makes everyone happy.

If anyone is interested in learning more about data sonification, please feel free to reach out to me, or comment below.

Here is a short code snippet from Bidder Moog. The code is extremely crude as it was written during a hackathon as a proof of concept only.



A Picture of Lance Massey


UI Engineer Lance Massey is a UI Engineer at MediaMath, doing full stack application development for MediaMath’s TerminalOne Marketing OS™. In addition to his programming work, he is also a composer, having written the T-Mobile ringtone along with dozens of other soundtracks and audio designs. His creative sound design firm and passion project NeuroPop is developing health and wellness products including sleep, focus, and analgesia algorithms. His specialties are leading edge front end development, data perceptualization, and using sound to save the world.

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