A philosophy of dependence, subsidy and market failure are divorcing the cultural sector from the benefits of data-driven policy and strategy, says Nesta report.

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The way that the arts and cultural sector uses data is out-of-date and inadequate, says a new report by Nesta. Opportunities to better understand and extend the cultural and social impact of public expenditure are “going begging”, according to Anthony Lilley OBE and Professor Paul Moore of Ulster University, authors of ‘Counting What Counts:  What Big Data can do for the Cultural Sector’, who urge arts and cultural bodies to emulate the management of so-called “big data” in other sectors. Their report says that arts organisations need to think of data “more as an asset and not just as a tool of accountability”, and to encourage them to do so, suggests that funding bodies should set key performance indicators for data usage for the organisations they fund.

Fundamental barriers thought to be holding the sector back are thought to stem primarily from the funding environment: “Too often, the gathering and reporting of data is seen as a burden and a requirement of funding or governance rather than as an asset to be used to the benefit of the artistic or cultural institution and its work.” The authors describe this situation as having arisen from “the philosophy of dependence, subsidy and market failure which underpins much of the cultural sector including the arts and public service broadcasting.” They suggest that a shift in mindset is required to enable the sector to make the most of the “big data opportunity”, and to “match much of the rhetoric of ‘investment’ which is used in the sector, particularly by policy and funding bodies… to date, this rhetoric has largely been just that; a new term to replace the loaded word “subsidy” rather than a genuine change.”

Other obstacles to taking advantage of data are found to include the limited interest in and understanding of data at senior levels in arts organisations: “For many, the potential of data in the cultural sector is at best a ‘known-unknown’ or worse goes entirely unappreciated.” The authors describe the idea of using data in the arts as “controversial or even anathema”, though recognise that there are “islands of passionate expertise and effective activity.”

The paper proposes three strands of work to help the sector engage with the “big data opportunity”, including the development or refinement of data strategies within cultural organisations; the establishment of Pathfinder Projects to explore approaches to data management in the culture sector; and support for policymakers, funders and boards  to “develop the necessary philosophy and skills to embed a culture of data-driven decision-making at the highest level.”