Kate Meredith and GLAS Education were recently recognized by the United Nations with making significant contributions to sonification research as a space science tool. Kate is also noted as a project coordinator with the Space Telescope Science Institute in developing Astronify, a software designed to sonify astronomical data. Entitled “Sonification: A Tool for Research, Outreach and Inclusion in Space Sciences,” the 52-page report by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), was released to GLAS on Monday, May 5. The report recommends continued development of sonification as a tool for scientific research.
Sonification turns data into musical notes, tones and rhythms which can be used by blind and visually-impaired researchers to mentally map information that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. Sight tells only a part of the cosmic story. Most of the electromagnetic information detected by is invisible to the human eye. Many of the images must be enhanced to make the invisible light discernable to sighted researchers. Turning data into sound adds depth to the information and makes it more accessible. The UN report points out that sonification can also deepen sighted researchers’ understanding of data. For example, sound-based data is superior in tracking changes over time.
Kate founded the nonprofit GLAS Education three years ago in Williams Bay with three other former Yerkes Observatory staff members. She said she is deeply gratified — make that overjoyed — at being recognized. GLAS has been in the forefront of efforts to make the sometimes exclusively visual astronomical information understandable to those with visual disabilities. “We’re so small and we’re noted with all of these big organizations with well funded projects,” said Kate, noting that GLAS has just two full-time employees, but loads of part-timers and volunteers who keep coming back to help.
“It’s validation of three years and more of work to promote sonification as a tool for accessibility,” Kate said. “We do things that impact on the national stage and the international stage.”
While Kate is mentioned by name but twice in the report, and GLAS only once, her fingerprints and those of GLAS Education are scattered throughout some of the other projects and programs cited by UNOOSA. Kate has held significant leadership roles in:
- Afterglow Access, a sonification tool developed through the IDATA (Innovators Developing Accessible Tools in Astronomy) which allows blind and visually impaired people to explore astronomical images. Kate started with IDATA and worked with blind students when she was at Yerkes Observatory and finished the four-year National Science Foundation program as GLAS’s director.
- Sonification World Chat is an online international community of more than 100 researchers launched by Kate in February 2020 and coordinated by GLAS Education that meets monthly to share information about applying sonification to scientific data.
- The Audible Universe, a workshop held online in 2021 and then in a face-to-face and online hybrid format in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 2022, which brought together educators and experts in astronomy, sound computing, sound design and sound perception to work out common ground in developing sonification for astronomical data.
The UN recognition is a credit to the students and interns who work and learn at GLAS Education, Kate said. For example, Ashley Wimer, fourth year geophysics student at the University of Chicago has been working with GLAS education since summer 2021. Ashley helped with Sonification World Chat and edited world chat presentations posted on a YouTube channel she set up in 2021. Ashley also wrote the initial draft of a National Science Foundation proposal to fund a sonification community of practice that focuses on geoscience. Maire Lucero, a high school student worked with Ashley during the summer of 2022 and, set up the Sonification World Chat website, https://sonificationworldchat.org/, with help from Adam McCulloch, GLAS education and outreach manager. “We wouldn’t have a Sonification World Chat website without her,” Kate said of Maire. Maire will be back at GLAS education this summer where she will be working on her own sonification project.
Also cited under the report’s “Other Online Resources” is Katya Gozman for “The Universe One Word at a Time” on Astrobites (https://astrobites.org/.) Katya interned with Kate at Yerkes Observatory from 2016 to 2018 where she worked on accessibility projects for IDATA and then transitioned to GLAS Education. She is now a Ph.D. student in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Michigan, but still helps out as a project mentor at GLAS when she can through Zoom meetings.
Kate said she’s proud that GLAS’s staff and interns have done so much to support interdisciplinary sonification research and continue to press for greater accessibility. GLAS is also active in creating 3D-printed tactile teaching tools to bring astronomy down to Earth for blind and visually-impaired students and excite the interest in astronomy for all students..