Opinion | What's the point of Big Data?

Cimeon Ellerton asks what's the point of big data?

Big Data doesn’t apply to the arts right? Culture is about people and feelings isn’t it, and what’s data got to do with that? Let alone other people’s data…

Well, not quite. Believe it or not, I’m not actually that interested in data itself. I don’t believe that it has any inherent or intrinsic value in itself. No matter what you might hear, data is not the new oil. This sort of rhetoric has done a disservice to the opportunities that big data offers us, especially in the cultural sector.

Unlike oil there are huge volumes of data and we’re creating it at a faster and faster rate. The value of data is only realised when action is taken based on useful analysis. So I’d like to retire the term big data, and just focus on the idea of an evidence based, or “data-driven” approach to the reaching diverse audiences with excellent art.

Here are three steps to becoming a more data-driven organisation:

1. Consistency

In order to tell convincing stories, we need to be sure that the story is true. And for that, we need quality data. One of the keys to a big data mind-set (sorry I used that word – old habits die hard) is thinking about who else has already solved the problems you face. Don’t spend an age agonising over the best way to ask audiences about their experience, or how you enter price types in your box office – find out how other people do it (inside and outside your organisation), check it makes sense for your needs and then stick with it. We’ve got loads of experience helping organisations do this and having that internal and external consistency means you can be confident about the stories you tell. So when you tell your funders, senior management or board about how special your organisation is you know that not only do you believe this to be true, but you can prove it.

2. Quality

I often talk to organisations who think their data is too small to bother with, but this is one of the biggest myths of a data-driven approach. Quality is much more important than quantity. Just remember the five R’s:

  • Recent – people and places change, so you want recent data wherever possible to make sure it’s about the world as it is now (or in the recent past). No 90s revivals here please.
  • Robust – how sure are you of the data’s accuracy? The classic project management triangle tells us that we can’t have things fast, good and cheap – this applies to data too.
  • Representative – is the data a true picture of the world. If you collect all your audience data on the same day of the week, or last month of the year it won’t reflect your organisation in those other days or months.
  • Relevant – this might seem obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to get carried away and just try to grab all the data you can. Asking – Is this data relevant? Is it applicable? – helps us make sure our energies are best utilised in wrangling data that is useful. It’s very common to try to stuff too much into a survey and find that both you and the survey respondent suffer information overload, making all the other R’s suffer.
  • Revealing – what is it going to tell you and how is knowing this going to be helpful? Knowing the colour of socks worn by your audiences is unlikely to help you in programming, marketing or fundraising (although I’m not ruling it out). On the other hand, don’t rush to assume info is definitely irrelevant.

If you can honestly say that your data meets these conditions, then your analysis can be informative and decision-making can be robust. We spend a lot of time working with and for organisations to ensure the Audience Finder Data is top quality. That’s why we’re always keen on data coding and data collection targets – it’s not for our benefit, it’s for yours.

3. Aggregation

Once we’ve got consistency and quality, we can start to really make the data work for us. One way is to aggregate the data and Audience Finder is designed to make this really easy. Unlike supermarkets with millions of shoppers buying hundreds of thousands of products every day, we in the arts are (thankfully) different. Not only because we’re tiny in comparison, but because we offer experiences.

However, by aggregating consistent and quality data, some of those futuristic (and sometimes scary sounding) analysis techniques can be applied to the aggregate data – so no matter how small your organisation may or may not be, we can all share the insight the data gives us. We’ve been working on predicting membership and audiences and we’ll soon be making these available to you. But even seemingly simple questions such as “What’s the audience for contemporary dance? Who are they and where are they?” can only be answered if we aggregate the data. So if there’s a question like this you can’t find answered in Audience Finder, get in touch and ask us – we love those questions!

So what’s the point of “Big Data” in the arts? I’d say that first and foremost, it is about becoming data-informed organisations using evidence to support your creativity by taking away the guess work.

Cimeon Ellerton is Head of Programmes at The Audience Agency.