Community spotlight header

Community Spotlight: Jordan Wirfs-Brock

ICAD 2018 Think Tank Student Scholar

So, who are you?

I am a PhD candidate in Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. I am passionate about making complex, data-heavy topics accessible to general audiences. Unifying my interests in sound, data-storytelling, and learning, I am researching how everyday interactions with data and sound might help people understand themselves and the world around them. I’m interested in the intersection of sonification and storytelling, particularly how speech and non-speech sounds combine to form coherent narratives, and how people make sense of speech and non-speech sounds together.

How did you end up working on Sonification and Auditory Displays?

Back when I was a data journalist, I worked in radio. It was frustrating to spend months on data analysis for an investigative reporting project, only to have it become a single sentence in a radio script. So I began looking for ways to tell data-driven stories on the radio and discovered sonification.

What is the role of Sonification/Auditory Display in your research?

I am interested in multi-sensory, embodied, and visceral experiences of data, thus I am especially curious about the interplay between sounds and visual or tangible data representations. My current work takes a research through design and participatory approach, so I am working with people to understand how, in their everyday lives, they might (a) record sounds as data, or (b) represent data they (or their devices) collect as sound. Sonification provides people with new ways to engage more deeply with data that they might otherwise have ignored, so it’s a great tool to scaffold conversations around how people make sense of data.

What is the most challenging part in your work?

I have always been a music and sound nerd, but I have to confess that I am not really a musician myself. (I took violin lessons as a kid but was pretty horrible at it!) So while I consider myself an audiophile and I love dabbling with designing sounds, I feel like I never quite know what I am doing and am always making things up as I go. But the more I talk with other sound designers, the more I realize how common this sentiment is.

Anything special ICADders should know about you?

I love collaborating so please get in touch! Also, another big part of my life is running (particularly trail and ultra running), so if anyone wants to go on a running adventure and maybe record some sound or sonify our experience, let me know.

What would you like to say to ICADders? 

I have always found the ICAD community to be extremely welcoming, warm and supportive. I truly believe that a critical part of literacy (including sonic literacy) is building the capacity to create as well as to interpret. Thus, as a community, I hope we can continue to support people in their endeavors to be creative with sound, sonification, and auditory display.

What is your favorite sonification/auditory display ever?

I love this sonification of Treasury Bond yield curves from Alan Smith (https://www.ft.com/content/80269930-40c3-11e9-b896-fe36ec32aece), especially the video. The sonification itself is simple, but Smith is an absolute master at explaining his design decisions and telling the story of the data.

What is the study/tool/work in the field of auditory display you are most proud of? 

I am proud of the two sonification pieces that I made in collaboration with the radio program Marketplace, on unemployment claims (https://www.marketplace.org/2020/06/24/heres-what-the-crescendo-of-unemployment-sounds-like/) and stock market volatility (https://www.marketplace.org/2020/03/31/the-sounds-of-a-volatile-stock-market/).

Any way to learn more about your work or reach out to you?

You can visit my website (jordanwb.com), reach out to me on Twitter (@jordanwb) or send me an email at wirfsbro@colorado.edu.