As any internet geek or high-priced consultant will be happy to tell you, we find ourselves today in the age of Big Data. You know, the era when science and numbers are supposed to solve all our problems forever? That one. And yet in the cultural sector, according to a report published earlier this year, we don’t have the data we need; we don’t know what to do with the data we have; and even if we did, we still wouldn’t use it to make decisions. (Okay, that may be oversimplifying things a bit…but not by much.)
So what are we supposed to do? That’s what the Cultural Data Project (CDP), which commissioned the report, wanted to find out. Many readers know the CDP as the folks behind those forms you have to fill out when you’re applying for grants. Its spinoff last year from a foundation-sponsored initiative housed within the Pew Charitable Trusts to an independent nonprofit prompted some organizational rethinking, and “New Data Directions for the Cultural Landscape,” by Slover Linett consultants Sarah Lee and Peter Linett, was one result. “New Data Directions” seeks to situate the CDP’s efforts within the larger context of data collection throughout the United States cultural sector.
The study synthesizes comments from an online forum that CDP hosted in late 2013 with a small group of cultural data experts drawn from academia and the consulting world. (Disclosure: Createquity’s Ian David Moss was one of the participants in this forum and is quoted a handful of times in the report.) It additionally draws from CDP’s internal strategic planning survey, a paper by Margaret Wyszomirski (not available online) that sought “to frame and inventory the cultural data landscape,” and the authors’ own interpretations and experiences.
After citing the benefits that data-informed decision making has provided in other fields, “New Data Directions” identifies a number of factors that it says are preventing us from reaping those benefits, namely:
- Poor accessibility, quality, and comparability of cultural data
- Norms about data collection and use, including low priority/importance assigned to the task of data collection in general
- Lack of coordination and standardization among existing data collection efforts
- Skill and resource capacity constraints among cultural nonprofits
- Organizations’ perceptions of the public and their audiences that inhibit the effective use of data in decision-making
- A paucity of vision and lack of role models regarding the successful use of data to drive decisions
To address these challenges, the report recommends some straightforward steps, including coordinating leadership on cultural data, engaging program and artistic staff in conversations about data, shifting the frame of data use from accountability to decision-making, developing a field-wide research and data collection agenda, developing data-related skills among organization staff, and improving the cultural data infrastructure.
Piece of cake, right? Though the report’s heavy reliance on the comments of a group of data experts might suggest that we’re off to a bad start in terms of “engaging program and artistic staff in the conversation about data,” Lee and Linett nevertheless surface several important and underaddressed issues facing the cultural data landscape. Perhaps the most crucial of these is a recognition that leading with data as the solution before carefully considering the problem it’s supposed to solve runs the risk of creating data that lacks a purpose. In many cases, arts organizations’ collection of data has been driven by the need to comply with funders’ reporting requirements rather than by a desire to collect information that could improve their future decision making. While the databases that have been generated through this process provide rich sources of information, it is not always clear what that information is good for, or how individual organizations can benefit from it. “New Data Directions” deftly calls attention to this “data first, questions second” mindset that appears to be so pervasive across the sector.
And yet to some extent, the report is itself a testament to the difficulty of escaping this mindset. By framing its entire exploration around data, “New Data Directions” inadvertently obscures the role that other forms of information and analysis, such as literature review, strategic goal setting, and probability assessment, can play in promoting better decisions. More to the point, if better decisions for better outcomes are what we’re really interested in, how much is suboptimal use of data really sabotaging that goal? The report seems simply to take it on faith that it is, without providing much evidence for that view or weighing how much other obstacles (e.g., management incentives) may be contributing to the problem. In part because of this focus on the activity rather than the goal, “New Data Directions” does a much better job of describing where we are and suggesting a path forward than imagining what we might find on the other side.
So it seems that last task is left to the rest of us. Without ever quite coming out and saying it, “New Data Directions” challenges all arts administrators to think purposefully about our role in addressing the situation mentioned at the top of this article. Are we ready to declare a crisis around data collection and use in the field? Do the observations and subjective impressions offered in the report resonate with your own experience? What would consistently effective use of data for decision making at the organizational and system-wide level look like in practice? What good would it do for the sector? And what would it take to make change in this particular way?
Cover image: “Data Represented in an Interactive 3-D Form,” courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory via Flickr Creative Commons license.