California State University, Long Beach
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A Calliope Collaboration

Published: May 1, 2014

CSULB’s School of Art and its Geography Department pooled expertise of their faculty and staff recently to create a mobile application interface called Calliope that renders geographical data using tones and music.

Art’s Sunook Park, a member of the university since 2006, and geography’s Hyowon Ban, who joined CSULB in 2009, first discussed joining forces when they met on their way to class in LA5. “When I passed the Geography students, I would watch them draw maps,” Park recalled. “I asked Dr. Ban why they bothered when there was Google mapping and she explained new mapping tools. That got me thinking about their alternative uses.”

That alternative turned out to be Calliope, a computerized map of an average L.A. neighborhood that users can source for information communicated not in words but in tones and music. To map the pathways, Ban’s students tapped into U.S. government census data. “Calliope begins with the choice of transportation through a particular neighborhood between walking, cycling, mass transit or personal transportation,” explained Park. Users can choose to monitor elevation, crime rate, population density, language, geology, land use, geographic coordinates and air quality.

“It was the people who lived in those neighborhoods who interested me,” said Park. “I saw that data about ethnicity, income and education might be changed to musical data. Say the map is meant to express income level. If that level is at a certain height, a certain percussion instrument is used. Another percussion instrument would communicate a lower level of income. Ethnic identity is easy because each ethnicity has its own music. Then I thought, why not combine that identity with information about the local crime rate? Music could be used to communicate the neighborhood’s relative height above sea level. When one drives through a particular neighborhood, one could ‘hear’ that neighborhood.”

Park earned his B.A. and MFA from the Art Center College of Design where he also served as a member of the faculty for 10 years. Ban received her bachelor’s and master’s from the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea, before joining ESRI Korea Inc., in Seoul. She later pursued her doctorate at Ohio State University in 2009.

Ban’s students specialize in the use of Geographic Information Science (GIScience) and digital cartography which they used to create 2D and 3D maps. “There are certain paths through L.A. that are attractive to tourists,” said Ban. “Look at Hollywood or Chinatown. My students mapped those pathways using GIScience along with the ethnicities along those paths and what languages visitors could expect to hear mostly. They laid out popular tourist destinations such as museums and restaurants as well as the local educational and artistic resources. We looked at the crime rate and even measured the relative elevation. After all, if you’re walking, elevation change matters.” she said.

Park saw a chance to match abilities. “I’ve got designers who can make these things look good,” he said. “The Geography Department has students who make things look accurate. I decided that, if the two could be put together, we could do something fun.” Participating graphic design students included Lucas Chen, Remo Bang, Susie Thai, Anna Hovhannisyan, Thao Le and Nazely Teimoorian. Participating geography students included Taylor Bell, David Kelly, Jesus Orozco and Christopher Suri.

Calliope Collaboration
Sunook Park (l) and Hyowon Ban.

The data-music connection is all about making communication more efficient, Park believes.

“If you have a page of data, with charts, it can take an enormous amount of time for someone to process all that,” he said. “The time for charts is past when you can use actual moving data. It is the difference between a photo and a film. A film can tell you a lot more than a photo. An application like this is useful any place you have to tell a story and tell it quickly. Imagine visiting an airport and looking at the various airline displays. You look at three-letter names for the airlines followed by a series of numbers representing times for landings and take-offs. Say you could convert all that data into an airline logo and a graphic interface saying how far the place is from where it needs to be. You could see that instantly. How much time do you have? How far away is the plane? You don’t have to read through everything to discover that. Now you can download all that information to your phone.”

The project is complete and the hunt is on for financial support. “It always takes time and money to realize these ideas,” Park said. “We need funding to develop the actual mobile application, build a larger database and compose music.”

Park believes there is a big future for apps like these. “This represents a coming-together of art and science,” he said. “As an educational institution, it is up to us to ‘break the siloes’ of our system. Projects like these make that possible.”

The musical app is a preview to other uses of GIScience technology, said Ban. “There are plenty of improvements waiting to be made,” she said. “There already exist studies to map behavior patterns or emotions the same way we map pathways. We even can map our relationships with other people. We will know things we never did before.”