Listening to the way people describe their work, lives and needs and which terms they are using to do so

Interview with Muki Haklay, Professor of Geographical Information Science at UCL

Advertisement to promote the use of WideNoise app to monitor noise around Heathrow Airport, 2012, image © UCL ExCiteS

LXD: Thank you for very much for agreeing to take part in this interview. Could you please introduce yourself to the reader with a short listening focused bio.

I’m a Professor of Geographical Information Science at UCL, where I’m co-directing the Extreme Citizen Science group. When I am thinking about what “listening” means, there are several aspects that are linked to my biography.

Most of my work is crossing disciplinary boundaries where you need to listen attentively to notice what people mean when they use a term or a phrase. I became “tuned” to listening by luck, when in my undergraduate studies I’ve combined theoretical computer science and human geography with a focus on environment and society issues.

Another aspect of listening came through my PhD research on public access to environmental information, during which I carried out participatory mapping and Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PGIS) activities. This element of my research has, for the past 20 years, required I listen carefully to the people and communities that I’m working with, to hear about their concerns and co-develop projects that work for both sides.

Finally, for the past 10 years, I’ve been involved in several projects that include sound and noise mapping, using noise meters and smartphones, as well as directly listening to the environment. My latest project – Into the Night – which focused on artificial light and its impact on nature and human wellbeing, included an activity of listening to nature sounds in darkness.


LxD: What does listening mean for you?

If I try to find a way to describe listening without looking it up in a dictionary, I would define it as the act of hearing the sounds and statements in a particular context, absorbing them and making sense of them. I would put a lot of value on the experiential aspect of listening while in a specific place, time and social/cultural context.


LxD: In what way does your work, research or practice involve listening?

As I’ve mentioned, listening is quite central to my work in several ways. First, in participatory work with a wide range of people who are joining a research project, it is very important to listen to the way they describe their lives, needs, and local environment – the process of co-creation of a joint activity works best when both sides are “co-opting” each other and understand why they are going to work together and to which end. As the side who is usually doing the asking, you need to listen and understand the needs and context to tailor activities that will match that. 

Secondly, as a person who works with researchers in different disciplines, I am trying to listen to the way they describe their work and which terms they are using to do so. You can many times notice that multiple people use the same words, and assume mutual understanding, while they mean different things. It is especially fascinating when people from different areas of research are referring to the same work by the same author, but their understanding of it and the way they use it is very different

Practicing the use of sound meters in Royal Docks, 2008 image © UCL ExCiteS

LxD: What is it you hear in your work and research?

I think that it’s conversations that I hear – by conversations I mean exchanges between different people trying to explore things, and trying to together make sense of them. Many times the conversations extend into the environment, with people listening to the wider world, sometimes measuring it, and then trying to act on it.


LxD: Do you listen out for something particular, do you work with a pre-given set of auditory expectations and aims, or do you start defining aims from what you hear? 

I don’t set out to listen to something specific – even the first time that I found myself starting to explore sound in the context of community mapping, we set out to ask the people who live near London City Airport about what they want to record in their area on a map, and they wanted to document the noise from the flights. In another case, around Heathrow, we knew that as part of a project we would use sound meter application, but it was left quite open how it would be used, so we explored who would be interested in using it.

Measuring noise levels near London City Airport, 2008, image © UCL ExCiteS

LxD: Does the auditory material that you produce or listen to contribute to a scientific or an artistic knowledge?

The auditory material itself is not captured in projects like the ones I’ve mentioned above, but the measurement of it and the act of recording the measurement are captured. This particular one was used to build community noise maps as well as a more artistic visualisation that was created on the basis of the information. 


LxD: Could you describe the listening methodology, tools, technology, approaches, etc. you employ in your work. How do you listen? 

So for the conversation part I’ve recorded discussions and focus groups and transcribed them, which is a common methodology in social science. In relation to the sound area I’ve had experience I used standard, off-the-shelf sound level meters, as well as a range of apps and smartphones.

There is something interesting in the use of smartphones, as their microphones were not designed for accurate measurements but for recording audio during a phone call, or to add audio to a video taken with the phone, so it is not surprising that they are producing inaccurate results. I mentioned this inaccuracy to the groups that we were working with, and then we made decisions as to what it is that we measure and record.


LxD: Do you use sound as a qualitative or a quantitative data: e.g. do you analyse the auditory material itself, your listening and the heard, or do you deal with its presentation as spectrogram, dB, etc.? And do you make aesthetic or scientific decisions in how you use this material?

Sound is used both as qualitative and quantitative data in my work – I learnt early on the principle that “numbers will tell you what, but qualitative understand will tell you why” and I am always aiming that quantitative capturing of sound (e.g. in dB(A)) will be accompanied by indication of qualitative properties. It is therefore both aesthetic, cultural and scientific representations that I’m interested in.


LxD: Do you combine the heard, the auditory information gained with other materials, images, numerical data etc. in the process of analyses and evaluation?

No, not much.


LxD: How do you think sound and listening can contribute to the understanding and responding to current, socio-political, geographical and ecological issues?

Yes, I do think that listening can contribute to many issues – from understanding the environment better, to noticing new aspects that are sometimes overlooked.

There is value in listening to the noise from machines around us – for example, to a microphone that is installed near Heathrow, which records birds songs, aeroplane engines, and lawnmower – you start to pay attention to the sounds and their meaning more.


LxD: Have you written/produced or could you refer us to any reference texts, works, or other material that you would like to tell the reader about?

On my blog, there are several posts about sound and listening such as:

There are also several papers:

  • Haklay, M., 2016, Making Participatory Sensing Meaningful, in Beebeejaun, Y. (ed.) The Participatory City, Jovis, pp. 154-161.
  • Jennett, C., Cognetti, E., Somerfield, J., and Haklay, M., 2016, Usability and interaction dimensions of participatory noise and ecological monitoring In Loreto, V., Haklay, M. , Hotho, A., Servedio, V.D.P, Stumme, G., Theunis, J., Tria, F.. (eds.) Participatory Sensing, Opinions and Collective Awareness. Springer. pp. 201-212.
  • Becker, M., Caminiti, S., Fiorella, D., Francis, L., Gravino, P., Haklay, M., Hotho, A., Loreto, V., Mueller, J., Ricchiuti, F., Servedio, V. DP., Sîrbu, A., and Tria F., 2013, Awareness and learning in Participatory Noise Sensing. PLoS One 8(12):e81638