The Culture Metrics workshop 2

The second workshop of the Culture Metrics program was held on Monday the 16th March 2015 at the Cornerhouse in Manchester. Speakers included Julian and Sarah Hartley and Chiara Zuanni, who outlined different uses of data in the cultural sector. This workshop was entitled ‘Bigger Data- Better Data?’ and more than twenty academics, cultural partners and arts representatives from all over the UK had travelled to Manchester to attend.

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Initially, the workshop was supposed to revolve around Big Data (as discussed in Sarah’s blog post below), but the research team had found during the first workshop that most cultural organisations interacted with ‘just enough’ rather than ‘big’ data. In response to this discovery, we agreed with Anthony Lilley that 'whether the data is technically defined as “big” is of comparatively little importance in some ways.  It is the use of data-driven approaches to drive insight and change behaviour which matters.’

Here are the questions we focused on throughout the afternoon:

* What kinds of data collection does your organisation undertake?
* How is this data discussed/ analysed/ stored/ visualised?
* What forms of data presentation/visualisation do you/your organisation use/value most?
* (How) does the data affect the management of your organisation?
* Do you collect data via facebook or twitter or other social media?
* What data channels do you think your audiences/stakeholders use most to express their opinions?
* What kinds of data do funders and policy makers value most and do these include ‘big data’?

Several interesting observations were made during the afternoon. Many workshop attendees felt that their organisations were obliged to gather audience data in order to advocate or ‘justify’ their practice, but there was little understanding of what happened to the data once it was submitted to the Arts Council or similar organisations. The gathering of data, they felt, should be used to create a ‘response to current world’ rather than remain a purely artificial exercise.

Although many organisations outlined a range of ways in which they collected data, only few knew how this data was then used within their organisations and whether it had an impact on the overall culture of their institution. It seemed that attendees mostly had an understanding of how to gather data, but that the actual analysis and visualisation was still a difficult endeavour. A skills gap in this area was particularly lamented.

Especially smaller organisations were reluctant to employ external help to increase their data gathering and analysis capacity. It was unclear to them how an extra investment might lead to a bigger or more diverse audience. This reluctance to ‘up-skill’ due to its financial implication was felt across the room (though not everyone agreed) and the group discussed whether audience data rather than creative, artist-led practice actually should drive artistic curation.

Some organisations were actively in touch with their audiences via social media and tried to gather feedback online. Whether this type of response was actually objective or useful remained difficult to judge for most. It was mentioned that some visitors might for example tweet something positive, so that the cultural organisation would re-post their feedback. Overall, many organisations felt overwhelmed by the amount of data which was available to them and/or which could be gathered. Data itself was perceived as meaningless- it is the analysis which counts.

A part of the discussion revolved around the notion of ‘open’ data which could be accessed by all via the internet. Although cultural organisations supported the democratisation of data in principle, they were worried in which ways their data would be (ab)used by others, suspecting that the narrative and culture or their organisation might not be visible via sterile numbers. Although many organisations welcomed to idea of benchmarking their success with others, the thought emerged that this could be done via the sharing of analysis rather than the raw data itself.

Overall, both the attendees and the research team enjoyed the lively discussion in a very stimulating environment. Thank you again to all those who made the afternoon possible. Although this was the last ‘Culture Metrics’ discussion group, further activity on the website will follow, so please check back soon.