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Data-Driven Music for the Disharmony of New York’s Income Inequality

Still of "Two Trains - Sonification of Income Inequality on the NYC Subway" by Brian Foo (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Still of “Two Trains – Sonification of Income Inequality on the NYC Subway” by Brian Foo (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

As the 2 train travels from Brooklyn through Manhattan up to the Bronx, it journeys along 49 stations of neighborhoods as varied as Flatbush, the Financial District, and Wakefield. Artist and web developer Brian Foo algorithmically composed a song to reflect the income inequality of these areas connected by the tomato-red MTA line.

Foo’s “Two Trains – Sonification of Income Inequality on the NYC Subway” condenses the roughly one-hour-and-45 minute ride to just four and a half minutes, divided in 48 sections for each connection between stations. The income data sourced from the 2011 US Census corresponds to the number of instruments playing, from 3 to 30, and the strength of their sound. For example, the blaring 1:37 mark represents the median income of $205,192 between Park Place and Chambers Street in the Financial District, while the most subdued movement of the song at 3:53 is between East 180th Street and Bronx Park East, an area with a median income of $13,750.

A 2 train on the elevated tracks in the Bronx in 2007 (photograph by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia)
A 2 train on the elevated tracks in the Bronx in 2007 (photograph by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia)

“To be as objective as possible, the same rules are applied throughout the whole song,” Foo explains on his site . “Also, I tried to select agnostic sound traits (e.g. volume, force) to correlate to median income rather than biased ones (e.g. sad vs happy sounds, vibrant vs dull sounds) to further let the data ‘speak for itself.'”

The Steve Reich-inspired lilting samples of clarinets, drum and bass, shakers, xylophone, and other instruments all play in the key of E major in tribute to the two-note subway chime of G# and E. It’s similar to Daniel Crawford’s “A Song of Our Warming Planet” from 2013, where he transformed climate change data into a rising cello solo. Both projects make what can be abstract data into a narrative aural experience.

Foo previously created Continuous City, an interactive platform where you can rearrange over 200 hand-painted NYC buildings into your own metropolis. For “Two Trains,” he cites the influence of the New Yorker‘s interactive Inequality and New York’s Subway. The subway system is itself a rich resource for exploring the demographics and rhythm of the city. Last week the Wall Street Journal posted an interactive map of the 466 stations in the MTA system with 67 bacteria, identified by researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College, presenting a portrait of New York’s urban ecology. Back in 2011, Alexander Chen released MTA.me that turns the schedule of the departing trains into a real time assortment of digital strings that cross and strum as the trains arrive and depart. The Tunnel Vision app launched by Bill Lindmeier last year is another augmented reality tool that engages with the MTA map to generate data sets on rent, income, language, and how many people come and go at each station.

According to Foo’s Data-Driven DJ page, he will be releasing tracks through next January as part of a future digital album, with the next planned for March called a “Rhapsody in Grey” (perhaps the L Train?). He’s also put all the code and sound files for “Two Trains” on GitHub, so anyone can make their line into a song. It would be an awesome tool to sync up your travels through the city in real time, where neighborhoods connected by a single train are often vast distances apart in their income equality.

h/t CityLab

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