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Hearing impaired renders you shortsighted

When business is booming, you can sense it…literally. We hear telephones ringing, hurried footsteps and conversations resonating in the hallways. We hear revenues before we see them. It’s time, therefore, to pay more attention to our sense of hearing in data analysis.

Hearing is one of our most powerful senses*. We can close our eyes but
not our ears. We can see something without realizing that it is even there. In other words, we can oversee things and see through them as well. Our ears, however, are relentless. When someone turns down the volume, we strain our ears even more. When it comes to recognizing and understanding things, I have a theory that hearing and seeing go hand in hand. In data analysis, however, we rarely use them together adequately. But now we have made one small step in the right direction.

As Bella already reported a few months back, the artist Johannes Kreidler created a grotesque graphic showing the effects of the financial crisis. He placed the falling stock prices in line charts with music and mixed them with scenes from children’s ballets. I won’t comment the artistic aspect but the businessman in me keeled over in pain. Kreidler’s flippant interpretation received considerable attention. Dozens of radio stations and newspapers covered his story.

Up until now, our analytical version of audio-animated time series was only known among business professionals in the fields of finance and management accounting. The idea to use our senses of hearing and sight in data analysis is too valuable and fruitful to see corrupted as an entertaining gag in the public eye. In fact, a tone sequence controls our eyes so that we can understand the pattern in a time series more quickly.

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One possibility to show data audio-visual. Press start, than each row will be played “twice”.

Here is one possibility how we can visualize data using audio-visual features. Simply click on “Start” to begin; each row will be played twice. It seems to work that way: Just because our eyes observe something doesn’t mean that we understand what we are seeing. That depends, in part, on a train of thoughts that stimulate our brains. This, however, doesn’t happen through sight alone. In this case, the effect must exceed an alarm threshold – which only happens in the case of extreme patterns. Audio effects, however, can produce the necessary stimulation. If you would like to see for yourself in person, we would like to invite you to the EVA 2009, an Electronic Media and Visual Arts convention in Berlin where we will show a live example.

We already introduced audio time series back in the year 2000. The higher the value was, the higher the tone it had. I also think that we business professionals have already shown that it makes sense to combine sight and sound for analytical purposes. We are still working on it. Seriously.

* Timo Frasch describes what the melodic components of their products mean to automobile manufacturers in a recent article in the Sunday edition of FAZ (“Die Herznote des Klangs“, FAZ No. 41 from 11 October 2009, p. 14).