Opinion | “Big Data in the Arts”

Big data – there’s a lot of it about. What used to be known as secondary or administrative data, has had a new rebrand and is now just “big”...

Everywhere you turn there are people using the exponential growth in data collected for other purposes to tell us something about the world (or our marketplace/customers/probable shopping basket). It’s caused by the coincidence (or not) of a number of factors – massive growth in all sorts of information which was once held on paper now being collected and stored digitally; the way that we increasingly live our lives online (leaving digital footprints all over the place); escalations in computing power and an increasing interest in data visualisation and the power of the algorithm.

We all know about commercial applications of research using this data, whether it be Tesco’s Clubcard, Amazon’s recommendations or Mosaic and ACORN profiling. Big data is also being used for government, social and academic research – from the Indices of Multiple Deprivation, based on fusions of data including benefit claimants and exam results, to using phone records for social network analysis, to epidemiologists using online data to track disease outbreaks, to talk of big data even being used to replace the next Census (but note the Save Our Census campaign, from concerned social researchers). And there’s funding going into research making use of big data, from the Cabinet Office, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to name but a few.

Just this week a new funding call was announced by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, which is supported by the Arts Councils of England and Wales, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and NESTA, the innovation experts. Previous rounds of funding have supported collaborations between arts organisations in developing digital innovations in creation, presentation and marketing. But following on from NESTA’s Counting what Counts report, which argued that “the current approach to the use of data in the cultural sector is out-of-date and inadequate”, they have now made a specific call for funding for big data projects relating to digital innovation.

Arts Audiences Insight engagement map from Culturemap

Of course, big data is in fact not new to the sector. Ticketed organisations were already “accidentally” building up large and complex customer databases when Tesco decided to start enticing their customers with loyalty discounts in order to generate the same. Although it has to be admitted that the skills in the sector were not always there to make the best use of the data. And for many years projects such as Culturemap London (and similar ones run by audience development agencies all over the country) have been helping arts organisations to better understand their audiences and the differences between them, and share understanding about audience behaviour and marketing approaches. Modestly, we might say that these data-sharing projects were, if not ahead of the curve in terms of big data, then at least near the front of it. But there’s no doubt that the world has woken up to the possibilities offered by combining and analysing large datasets and there are surely many new tools and approaches to explore. It will be fascinating to read about the projects that receive funding.

Orian Brook is a PhD Student at the University of St Andrews, an associate of The Audience Agency and former Research Director of Audiences London. Her research uses spatial modelling of Snapshot and other box office and survey data to explore how access to cultural facilities influences participation.