SoundCity Measures City Noise and its Impact on Health

By June 30, 2015
urban traffic

The app aggregates user data to raise awareness of the effects of noise pollution on health.

A Franco-American team of researchers, doctors and entrepreneurs have developed an app designed to measure, record, assess and share noise pollution levels in cities. The SoundCity app periodically records noise picked up by your mobile phone throughout the day, and the system will then try to establish a link with noise levels that may present a risk to your health. The app project is part of of the Urban Civics programme set up by Inria (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation), which plans to use data garnered from crowdsourcing and social networks, plus other available statistics, based on an ‘open data’ model, with a view to gaining a better understanding of urban pollution, in particular noise pollution. So why did the team decide to draw on smartphones? ‟Firstly for technical reasons, given that the phones are all equipped with one or several microphones that enable them to capture some of the noise emitted by the ambient environment,” explains Valérie Issarny, a Senior Research Scientist at Inria who is working as project coordinator, adding: “Secondly because noise is a type of pollution that is not much talked about, but which can have a major impact on health. In Europe, there are quite a lot of rules pertaining to noise, which means that overall the issue is being handled fairly well over here. In the United States, however, there’s almost no regulatory policy in this field, since President Ronald Reagan’s decision to put everything to do with noise on one side in order to concentrate on air quality,” she points out.

Noise pollution an under-researched issue

The purpose of the SoundCity project is to collect data from people’s phones, in order to build up a body of new information on how far people are being exposed to noise. The idea is that the app will run in the background, collecting five seconds’ worth of data every five minutes without the phone user having to do anything at all. However, when a very loud noise is detected, the app enables the user to identify the source. The app can also work in tandem with a smart watch so as to calculate the user’s pulse and compare it with his/her pulse rate at ‘normal’ noise volumes, the intention being to highlight conditions under which people’s stress levels rise. In this way, users will be able to obtain a better idea of the effects of noise pollution on their quality of life, and have the chance to adjust their daily habits accordingly. Among the various sources of noise that the app will record – apart from the obvious automobile noise – are public transport, garbage collection, local fire stations, hospitals and other establishments.

Users can indicate the source of specific noise pollution

Widespread phone-gathered data

Both in the United States and Europe, mapping the sources of noise pollution uses simulation models which are less than perfect and do not always represent the entire range and variability of the noise properly,” underlines Issarny, explaining: In the long term, our aim is to try to improve mapping techniques by using measurements drawn from people’s phones. The data is imprecise, but there’s a lot of it and it comes from all over the city. The idea is also that the maps will pinpoint specific sources of noise that citizens have reported.” The team plans first of all to draw up a map for Paris and one for a city in the San Francisco Bay Area, ideally San Francisco itself, once enough data has been collected. The long-term goal is to get citizens involved so that they can bring their local authorities to book on particular sources of noise pollution. At the moment the app is running in beta version and it is scheduled to be available for Android devices within the next few weeks.


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