What’s that Noise? Using Technology to Fight Noise

By Victoria Lubas | December 10, 2019

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SONYC Analyzes the Sounds of NYC

Walking along Manhattan’s busy streets, taking notes in class, or catching some shut-eye in between study sessions all have one factor in common: they’re part of the soundtrack of the city. In the background of New Yorkers’ daily activities persists the inevitable sounds of construction, traffic, sirens, rowdy pedestrians, and so much more. Noise-related complaints are the most common type of issue reported to the Big Apple’s civil complaints service, 311. The Sounds of New York City (SONYC) research team is working to better monitor noise pollution with the hope of reducing the all-around urban noise affecting millions of Americans and causing ailments1 such as hearing loss and heart disease.

The SONYC team, led by Lead Principal Investigator (PI) and Steinhardt professor, Juan Pablo Bello, as well as co-PIs Anish Arora, R. Luke DuBois, Oded Nov, and Claudio Silva, consists of researchers from NYU and Ohio State University. The project began four years ago by placing microphone sensors on buildings throughout the City that Never Sleeps; a large portion of which are concentrated in Greenwich Village. The sensors record audio randomly in ten-second clips to ensure any conversations happening in the microphones’ vicinity are not identifiable.

SONYC reported that in December 2018, one sensor cost about $80 to make. At that point, they had planted 56 sensors and “gathered the equivalent of 30 years of audio data and more than 60 years of sound-pressure levels and telemetry.”2 SONYC is supported by the National Science Foundation and NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), as well as NYU Tandon and Ohio State University’s Translational Data Analytics Institute.

Acoustic sensing unit deployed on a New York City street

Acoustic sensing unit deployed on a New York City street. Photo courtesy of SONYC.

An Overabundance of Data

The amount of data SONYC has collected is so abundant that it is impossible to be analyzed by the participating researchers alone. To analyze the data and help the program learn to identify different sources of noise pollution on its own, SONYC is enlisting the help of interested and engaged non-scientists to analyze the ten-second clips into categories on Zooniverse.org. Alongside the sound clip is a list of 32 potential sounds. Users are asked to listen to the clip and identify every sound they hear and whether it sounds close or far away.

As an NYU-affiliated research program, SONYC has been housing this data on NYU’s High Performance Computing (HPC) cluster since its inception. As the program progressed, the amount of data collected grew to the point that the standard amount of storage was no longer enough. At this point, almost two years ago, SONYC partnered with NYU IT’s Research Technology department for support and access to increased storage. According to NYU IT’s Director of Research Technology Services, Stratos Efstathiadis, as well as Shenglong Wang, Research Technology supports SONYC with increased access to the HPC, data storage, computing support, and Graphics Processing Units (GPUs).

As the Research Technology Expansion Program progresses, NYU gets closer to HPC expansion, new GPUs, and significantly higher speed, all of which will greatly benefit projects like SONYC. Once the expansion is complete, SONYC will be able to work with more data than they ever could before. Wang says the new HPC will improve SONYC’s “storage and computational environment.” Efstathiadas expects that the “initiative to increase computational capabilities of NYU [will allow] SONYC to benefit from additional storage and data capacity.”

SONYC’s Other Ventures

SONYC’s contributed article in the February 2019 issue of Communications of the ACM3 stated that they have achieved their original goal of “developing and deploying intelligent sensing infrastructure.” Now, SONYC is focused on the long-term goal of helping cities identify the sources of urban noise to effectively minimize noise pollution. As the project moves forward, SONYC plans to upgrade their sensors and create real-time noise maps. They are also creating a mobile platform to help urban residents get involved by allowing them to track sound and report to authorities.

Adolescent New Yorkers can also get involved in SONYC by participating in the two-week long summer program in collaboration with the NYU Tandon Center for K-12 STEM Education, a partner of SONYC. During the program, sixth- through ninth-graders hear from the SONYC research team about the dangers of noise pollution, build sound-monitoring devices, and apply what they’ve learned to the city around them.

NYU undergraduate students can also participate in SONYC’s research. Through the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program, undergraduate students can earn credits for contributing to select ongoing studies.  Through the program, undergrads interact with professional researchers, learn more about the work being done, and help the project advance.

SONYC’s participation in the VIP program, as well as its middle school summer program, and the call for resident input in identifying data showcases the program’s focus on interacting with the community while working to improve it.


  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Environmental noise pollution in the United States: developing an effective public health response.”
  2. Communications of the ACM, February 2019. “SONYC: A System for Monitoring, Analyzing, and Mitigating Urban Noise Pollution.”
  3. Communications of the ACM

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