Can we measure the noise of humanity?

Humanity has become quiet in a way we have never been before.


In the last six months, the world has changed in countless ways. We work differently, we drive less, we spend less time with our friends and families. Humanity has become quiet in a way we have never been before.

Can we measure this “noise” change in humanity?

This is a question that was posed by a group of Seismologists. When we think of seismometers, we are measuring the movement of the ground. The purpose is typically to measure earthquakes, volcanoes, and explosions. Human noise was thought to be a factor but rarely a focus. From the paper,

“… everyday human activity is recorded as a near-continuous signal, especially on seismometers in urban environments. These complicated signals are the superposition of a wide variety of activities happening at different times and places at or near Earth’s surface …”

Seismometers must be located in urban areas to identify critical events but at the same time these urban locations create a lot noise that makes it hard to resolve critical events (i.e. earthquakes).

The right datasets to study this problem are rare and heterogenous.

Thomas Lecocq and team gathered data from over 300 stations to build a dataset to understand and, in turn, measure this quiet time for humanity.

“Notably, we found a near-global reduction in noise, commencing in China in late January 2020, followed by Italy, the whole of Europe, and the rest of the world in March to April 2020. This period of reduced noise lasted longer and was often quieter than the Christmas–to–New Year period.”

The image below is terribly interesting, we can see COVID19 lockdown span the continent. At the same time, we can cities such as Hong Kong return to normal noise (or even noisier in April).

Image from paper shows the lack of noise across time and city.

I found this paper fascinating. First, the world-wide collaborative effort at this complicated time is inspiring. Second, the recognition that we can use this terrible situation to improve our algorithms/analysis to make our future better.

Finally, it is also an interesting picture of us, humanity, at this time in our history. When I look at the image above, I see fear and chaos spreading across the world. I see how some of us didn’t have that luxury (Hong Kong). I see Seattle refusing to give up.

I wonder if the image will ever be the same as pre-COVID. Has the pandemic permanently changed us and the noise we make? I hope they will update this image periodically.

I am very excited that Dr. Thomas Lecocq will be our opening speaker at the data science conference this year.




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