Big, open and demanding: The data challenge for cultural organisations

By Julian and Sarah Hartley, Dim Sum Digital Ltd

Kicking off data conversations in cultural organisations can be framed in terms of the demand and the supply of data. So as a first point of discussion, it’s worth thinking about data in the following terms:

  1. Who, if anyone, was calling for the data to be released before it was open? (Demand-side)

  2. How, specifically, it was released – including stakeholders involved, those     supportive and against, specific leverage points, etc. (Supply-side)

Both are valid points of discussion which we will touch on here. Looking at those two aspects will typically revolve around questions of whether data is ‘open’, whether it is ‘big data’, what benefits can be gained, how to go about gathering it ? etc.etc.

As we dig deeper to consider Monday’s research proposition this blogpost seeks to put forward a couple of additional thought provocations to the above framework:

  1. Is there ‘accidental’ data which cultural organisations could use in order to better understand, and therefore serve, their audiences?

  2. What are the implications of big data for cultural funding organisations?

Accidental data gathering?

In all our interactions online, data trails follow our activities. Whether that’s the location our tweets are sent from or the pathway a website link travels as it’s shared across Facebook, these data trails are powerful and visible leads for a cultural detective.

It means the real-time data we accidently give out as we shop online can be queried about the tastes and habits of those communities’ neighbouring arts and cultural organisations.

As Juan Mateos-Garcia posted in The art of analytics: using bigger data to create value in the arts and cultural sector (February 2014):

“The web is like a vast mirror that reflects our actions, and it can provide insights into our behaviour, and even our desires.”

This data can guide cultural organisations to consider who, why, when and for what purposes local communities might be interested in becoming audiences. Therefore this data has potential to be harnessed to help organisations find ways to broaden their audiences through new initiatives and programmes.

Yet demand for social data from the cultural sector would require data literacy on their part and it is interesting to consider where those skills would sit within the existing organisational structures. Another aspect to this ‘social data’ is what gaps in their cultural metrics will be revealed when it is queried for cultural insights into the communities the arts organisation serve.

Might funders begin to use this data to evaluate organisations independently of any cultural metrics offered to them?

How are cultural funders considering big data?

The organisations which fund cultural activities produce data with every grant, award, activity review, funding round and evaluation. Much of that data is now being made publicly available for the first time - sometime not necessarily with the participation of the funder itself.

We spoke to one of those behind the open data initiative, 360 Giving, William Perrin. As well as being a leading adviser on technology (member of the Digital Government Review 2015 and a former technology adviser to Tony Blair), Perrin co-founded the transparency tool to inform different funding bodies about each others’ activities. The database now includes information from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and Big Lottery.

In this short video interview (recorded over Skype) he talks about reasons for starting 360 Giving, and the way data being included at the service impacts on cultural organisations.

The pressure to improve the information being shared about those cultural organisations who receive funding through public bodies is increasing all the time and coming from individual campaigners as well as organisations.

Chris Unitt runs a website on digital metrics and has recently taken the Arts Council to task about the way it collects data.

In a post titled, Improving the digital metrics Arts Council England collects from funded organisations, he outlines the need to re-think the questions being posed to fundees: “Arts Council England asks their National Portfolio Organisations to submit an annual report with all sort of information and figures. As part of that they’re required to provide some digital metrics.

Here’s what they ask for (photo via @SamScottWood)”:

Unitt concludes that the questions themselves are a big part of the problem in this exercise as they can’t result in useful and valuable data to share with the sector..

Whether you consider intervention like Unitt’s to be pesky interference or a helpful starting point for a more in-depth conversation might reflect your own organisation’s attitudes towards the value of data openness, visibility and sharing. But there’s no doubting that the demand end of the equation here, coming as it does from an engaged member of the cultural community, reflects a move to catalyse change in the sector.

Going back to the supply end of things to wrap up this provocation, the organisational benefit of producing more, better and bigger data is something researchers have been attempting to measure too.

Nesta ‘s report (March 2014) Inside the Datavores, claimed to quantify, for the first time, ‘the link between higher levels of online data use in UK businesses, and their economic performance in terms of productivity and profitability’.

It concludes: “Our analysis makes it clear that, despite the hype, managers ignore the potential of data at their peril. At the same time, building up their IT infrastructure to collect and process more data on its own will do little. The data needs to be probed and analysed, and their workforce needs to be empowered to act on what is learned.”

As Perrin also pointed out: “People often in the public sector - despite now seven years of the open data movement and a remarkable turnaround in this attitude to open publication - people intrinsically don’t think about publishing things by default and then they also wonder ‘who on earth might want it’.

“The only way to find out what this stuff can do is in fact to see what people do with it. It’s a discovery-led process, an innovation-led process and should no longer be a bureaucratic process. The bureaucrats need to put aside their traditional reserve and secrecy and say ‘there is a greater public good here, we don’t know what it is, but we won’t find out until we put the data out there for people to manipulate’.”



Further data related links: - owned and managed by Leeds City Council as a Civic Enterprise in partnership with Leeds-based digital content, data insight and storytelling specialists, Hebe Works. - created by public sector organisations in Greater Manchester, to release and bring together in one place as much data as possible. - Beehive is our attempt to make the work of small non-profits visible to those most likely to support them. - Big Lottery Data explored.