What does it sound like if you turn four decades of global refugee movement into a three-minute music video?
Brian Foo, who calls himself a 'data-driven DJ,' recently answered this question: quiet at first, but loud and alarming at the end. The New York City-based researcher used refugee data from the United Nations from 1975 to 2012 to create the audio visualization.
"The quantity, length, and pitch of the song's instruments are controlled by the volume of refugee movement and distance traveled between their countries of origin and asylum," Foo wrote in a blog post, explaining the methodology behind the video. The song was composed, following strict algorithms:
"The annual global aggregate volume of refugee migration controls the quantity of instruments playing.
The annual average distance of refugee migration controls the duration and pitch of the instruments.
The annual amount of countries with 1,000+ refugees control the variety of instruments playing."
Four seconds in the song correlate to one historical year: The chaos of wars, displacement, and flight are arranged in a surprisingly well-organized manner. Is that sufficient to reflect the tragic stories behind the pure numbers?
"I believed this type of data would be more appropriate for a song since music has the capacity to express and communicate emotion and produce empathy, which is something hard to do with just a visualization. The hope is that if listeners remember the song, they will also remember the issues associated with it," Foo told WorldViews in an e-mail.
"The intended result is for the listener to intuitively and viscerally experience the sheer volume of displaced populations and the distance they travel from their home country," Foo argues.
How the world's refugee movement developed in detail:
In 1975, which is the first year of Foo's visualization, there are about 1.6 million world refugees.
Only 15 years later, the number of world refugees has increased by 900 percent.
Although Africa and Asia continue to be especially affected at that time, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 lead to migration from Eastern to Western Europe.
Foo acknowledges that his song and visualizations do not offer insights into specifics. "I really wanted to include the context of a lot of these refugee movements, such as civil wars, invasions, coups, elections, but the piece quickly became overly complex and encumbered. Music is not that great at communicating accurate and specific data," Foo said.
Since 1992, the volume of international refugees has fallen.
What appears to be particularly striking in recent years, however, is that refugee movement has become truly global.
"The song and visualization immediately revealed to me how small the world is getting," Foo wrote. While escape routes previously tended to be located between neighboring countries or regions, far-away destinations such as Europe or the U.S. are increasingly the target of African or Asian migrants.
"As the song progresses, more instruments are added and the notes become longer and lower-pitched, which represent increased migration between more countries across longer distances," Foo added.