The Movements Of Refugees Fleeing Their Homelands, Tracked In One Beautiful Song

An emotional tune from a “data-driven DJ.”

Forty years ago, most refugees traveled short distances–often between neighboring African countries or around a pocket of Southeast Asia. Today, relocations stretch all around the world.


A new song based on United Nations refugee data from 1975 to 2012 tracks the changing movement of groups of people fleeing persecution.

“I believe what the song and map immediately reveal in the data is a shrinking world,” says Brian Foo, the programmer and artist who created the project. “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…The sheer volume of people displaced and the distances they travel–often across oceans–from their home country become the most striking aspect of the data for me.”

Foo, who calls himself the Data-Driven DJ, has previously composed songs using data on smog levels in Beijing and inequality on the New York City subway. With this song, he was interested in how music could represent movement.

“I wanted to make a song derived from global migration patterns of people over time,” he says. “I believed movement across variable distances would translate well into song: for example, you can think of the paths of migration as strings of a guitar which changes pitch with changing distances. However, what I thought was missing from such a song was the context in which people were migrating. That is what led me to refugee data published by the United Nations…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.”

As the song progresses, the number of instruments shows the volume of global refugees, while the pitch and length of notes represents how far people are traveling. As the number of countries with large refugee populations grows, so does the variety of instruments.

Foo pulled samples of pedal steel guitar from the Canadian musician Daniel Lanois, along with bass and guitar samples from a Bon Iver song. He wanted to aim for a country sound, inspired by a podcast from Radiolab called Songs that Cross Borders. American country music, it turns out, is surprisingly popular in places like Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Thailand.


“The suggestion is that American country music appeals to disparate global populations due to the genre’s lyrical content often associated with migration, longing, loneliness, and nostalgia for home,” he says. “Also, country’s signature instrument, the steel guitar, is iconic of the crying human voice, also known as ‘crying steel.’ I thought this instrument and genre would fit well with the subject of refugee movement, where large populations of people are displaced from their home country.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.