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GLAS director Kate Meredith and GLAS team member Ashley Wimer returned Dec. 17 from their trip to Leiden, the Netherlands, for The Audible Universe 2 conference at Leiden University’s Lorentz Center.

About 30 researchers from around the world attended the conference from Dec. 12 to 16. The researchers are involved with sonification, the process of turning visual data into sound which makes astronomy accessible to the blind and visually impaired (BVI). they are educators, astronomers; researchers in sonification; and experts in sound or music computing, sound design and sound perception. Several of the conference attendees were also BVI.

Ashley had never been out of the country before, but took the new experience in stride. “She was really calm about the whole thing,” Kate said. Ashley spent a week talking to people about sonification and about collaboration on sonification research. Through her experience at the conference, Ashley has volunteered to write a Research Coordination Network grant through the National Science Foundation, which will be completed by the end of January, Kate said.

Kate said she learned about evaluation in sound design which will help with future grant proposals and project designs. She said she also learned about music and culture and how it affects hearing. “This has really pushed us down the road,” she said.

The incredible images of astrophysical objects are often the result of computer and photographic enhancements, because most of the light in the universe: ultraviolet, infrared, X-rays, radio waves and gamma rays, are  invisible to the human eye. Despite the fact that humans are all basically blind to the Universe, the data is usually represented visually.

There is a growing interest in the research area of converting astronomical data to sound.

Long an advocate of data accessibility, Kate was one of the scientific organizers of the conference and she led a workshop on Afterglow Access, a software tool designed to work with screen readers and allows users to experience images through sonification. Afterglow Access was developed through the IDATA project, (Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy) which involved Yerkes Observatory and later, GLAS Education.

Kate and Ashley spent time connecting with the other conference attendees, exposing GLAS Education and its work in sonification and to an international audience. 

Kate said the Dutch hosts of the conference were very polite and friendly, but also very punctual. Workshops and presentations started right on time. And the food and coffee were excellent. Kate called the coffee “jet fuel,” and provided the caffein recharge that helped her overcome the seven hour time difference between Wisconsin and the Netherlands.

Kate took examples of GLAS’s tactile astronomical images, and they were a big hit with the researchers at the conference. She also took pictures and interviewed the attendees. Kate’s nephew, Zach Meredith, who is studying in the Netherlands, also made a video of the sonification conference. “I’m very optimistic,” said Kate. “It was probably one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to.”

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