Opinion | The Anthony Lilley Leadership Briefings

Reflections on the first series of our CultureHive Leadership Briefings on big data...

The first in our series of Leadership Briefings concluded this month at Watershed in Bristol following earlier stops at York Theatre Royal and Curve, Leicester. With the aim of connecting cultural leaders with key current topics, these half-day events brought a speaker – for these Anthony Lilley, co-author of ‘Counting What Counts’ – into a closed-door discussion session with a small group of CEOs, curators and general managers.

This session was not simply a presentation about ‘Counting What Counts’, published this year by NESTA and subtitled ‘What Big Data Can Do For The Cultural Sector’. But it took the themes and thinking behind the book and tested what they mean for cultural leaders today. These sessions were not about unanimous agreement but exploring different perspectives and opinions.

What makes big data so pivotal is firstly the three Vs: volume, variety and velocity. Technology can record actual activity and expression of feeling more accurately and in greater volumes; and social media can share and publish it more immediately and often more widely than ever before. Secondly there is the unrealised potential of big data to tell new stories or deliver fresh insight into the impact created by arts and culture as different types of data are brought together: “Before Big Data, our analysis was usually limited to testing a small number of hypotheses that we defined well before even collecting the data. When we let the data speak, we can make connections that we never thought existed.” Mayer-Schonberg and Cukier (2013).

These were intense and varied sessions that covered Nate Silver and the art of prediction, Google flu trends, the Netflix re-make of ‘House Of Cards’ commissioned (almost) entirely on data analysis of viewing habits, as well as sharing individual practice from around England. Most organisations represented here avoided the pitfalls of being limited by technology, habit or culture patterns; or of confusing reporting to a funder with an organisation’s own metrics for impact. There were excellent examples of analysing data with great accuracy to set and predict sales patterns or to inform exhibition design. But also some common issues and concerns:

  • Volumes of data – some organisations (often but not exclusively ticketed ones) felt the burden of too much data, whereas others feel the lack (or the lack of reliable data). Finding ‘the signal in the noise’ is linked to the next point:
  • Resources to analyse and resources to share – both people and expertise but also the appropriate technology especially as the types and scale of data increase.
  • Social impact – the need to convey intrinsic impacts both on individuals and the wider local population. This is not a contradiction with analysing large data sets but some felt the need for balance between the two
  • Sharing data – particularly amongst touring companies and venues

Some of these issues are linked to current data sets and current skills but all can impact on realising the potential of big data. Audience Finder is a platform to share and analyse data for the cultural sector and already has over 300 organisations signed up to submit data. In addition Audience Finder contains many tool-kits and guides to support organisations in developing strategies to tackle the above issues. And CultureHive contains many case-studies of how cultural organisations have put this into practice. For the final point about data sharing between venues and touring companies, a long-running and thorny debate, the tool-kit on Audiences On Tour is a vital starting point to consider the legal, contractual and partnership approaches to sharing data for both communications and research purposes. Further advice has been commissioned from The Audience Agency working with Roger Tomlinson on this topic as data sharing for insight is likely to be a key component of the new National Portfolio agreements – this should be available in January 2014 as part of advice to applicants.

There were many excellent examples of practice from around the country of data-mining, of consortium working and planning, and of combining data insight with judgement to make strategic decisions around programming. Not everyone agreed equally or at all with the notion of data-driven decision making but I hope these sessions provided rich food for thought and inspired some actions for organisations to improve their approach to data-mining and to decision-making.

Digital metrics abounded but no single organisation we met has yet achieved the much-sought after integration of data from both the physical and digital domains. But as organisations continue to grow in their sophistication and capacity, one message that resonated was clear: “tell stories with your data” (and David McCandless’s ‘Information Is Beautiful’ received further accolades for helping to do this in more imaginative ways than a colour-coded pie-chart). Coinciding with these events, The Guardian interviewed Andreas Schleicher of the OECD about its latest triennial tests on educational attainment amongst 15-year-olds in 66 countries. His view: “without data, you are just another person with an opinion". Whether running individual organisations or making the case collectively for the cultural sector, we need wisdom and judgement but also evidence; we cannot afford to be miscast as simply people with opinions.

Ivan Wadeson

These Leadership Briefings were part of CultureHive best practice programme managed by the Arts Marketing Association in partnership with The Audience Agency, part of Arts Council England’s Audience Focus programme, supported by Lottery funding.