Citizen sensing: Mapping data on sound levels in Boston


Over the past month, our team has been developing the first prototype for integrating low-cost mobile sensors into the Promise Tracker platform to expand the range of information that citizens can collect and map with our toolset. We are excited to work with partners at Safecast and the the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group over the next year to explore how we can leverage hardware advances to make it possible for users to map data on environmental factors such as air quality. While we wait to get our hands on new sensors for particulate matter, ozone and methane, we decided to run our first test on something a bit easier to detect – sound levels.

Using an RFduino microcontroller and an affordable sound board, we came up with a battery-powered mobile sound pressure sensor for around $50 that can be paired via bluetooth to the Promise Tracker mobile app. Once paired, the app automatically uploads geolocated sensor data on sound pollution throughout the day. When particularly high sound levels are detected, the app will ping the user and request some contextual information such as a photo of the location, the primary source of sound (transportation, construction, etc.) and a sound sample.

Boston Soundscape Map

After carrying the sensor around Cambridge and Boston for a few days, we were able to get our first collaborative map of sound in the city along with citizen media and context.

We are excited by the possibility of incorporating sensing for sound, air quality and water quality into the core Promise Tracker platform and exploring how citizens might leverage these tools to better map and transform their cities. We’ll be continuing to test different sensors with local groups over the next months and look forward to sharing the outcomes!

For more info on our sound pilot, check out Joy Buolamwini’s post about Citizen Sensing on the Center for Civic Media blog.