Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.

I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.

What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?

As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.

Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.

New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.

Walk me through the process of actually creating the map.

The 311 data covers all five boroughs of New York City, so first I checked the distribution of the complaints, which revealed that Manhattan was, well, far noisier than any other borough. From there, it was a lot of work with arrays and nested loops to corrected parse and sum the data, as well as some effort to correctly project the latitude and longitude data.

Most of my effort — what I’m proudest of — went into the aesthetic design of the visualization to at once visually telegraph “noise” while best revealing the contours of the data. I experimented with some pretty typical bubble visualizations that obscured the data either by emphasizing outliers only or overlapping too much. I also really wanted to create a graphic representation of waves of noise, and, after some finessing, I was able to create the image of circles emanating from a point. This scheme balanced the concentration of noise in some neighborhoods with visualizing the city as a whole. When a visualization hits both the aesthetic and communication marks, I know it’s in a good place.

After that, I was able to reuse the code I had written to break out each individual noise complaint. I was curious about the seasonal periodicity of the complaints, so I did a little work to graph the month-to-month changes in number of complaints as well.

Anything revealed by the map that you find particularly interesting?

I was most fascinated by all the little stories that the map revealed. As I was working through annotating the multiple maps on the bottom half of the graphic, I was a little stumped by “Engine Idling” and that there appeared to be one strong focus point for these complaints in the city. Nothing seemed particularly special about the neighborhood, so I used Google Street View to see if I could discover anything special about the location. I immediately saw four Hampton Jitney buses parked next to a large apartment complex. I checked their website, and sure enough, Hampton Jitney had a bus stop just a few blocks south.

I imagined the hot summer, all open windows and oscillating fans and the steady, awful, mechanical throb of diesel engines idling outside, a little story about New York, a real one, that I would have never imagined otherwise.

Then there are the three loudest dogs in the city, the loud car music that only appears north of Central Park, the outlines of the Lower East Side where the loudest bars mix with apartment buildings, or the stark difference between construction north and south of the Harlem that reveals where the city invests its money in infrastructure (hint: it’s not investing in neighborhoods that are home to minorities).

What’s your own personal experience of noise in New York?

I lived in the East Village for two years and I do not miss the drunk kids yelling and screaming at all hours of the night, or even the morning on some select holidays! No joke, I overheard a half dozen breakups outside my bedroom window. I also don’t miss the horns, the horns, always the horns. I now live out in Brooklyn where an aboveground train passes by my window every ten minutes or so; I much prefer that! That’s the price of density, I guess — noise.

What about Hong Kong, where you lived near Kowloon Park for a short time?

Somehow, Hong Kong seemed much more peaceful. Even though it’s far, far more chaotic and compressed than even New York, there’s less intrusive noise (carousing, traffic noise). Living nearly ten stories up above the commotion sure helps, too.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday May 29 2013at 03:05 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Maps, Public Space, United States and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.