There have been many attempts to visualise arts and cultural data. This blogpost is a mini anthology of data portals, visualisation outputs and widgets that attempt to help people understand, analyse and generally enjoy what data exists about arts and culture. I am predominantly interested in tools that allow people to intuitively and visually play with and understand data. Catalogues and directories are useful, but not the holy grail for me.
The focus is on the UK, though I have tried to include interesting examples from around the world. I am not a technical expert – not a programmer or a designer. However, I make a living out of translating research and analysis for an arty audience (who are rarely stats or data savvy). I offer some modest reflections (+ve and –ve on each of the resources).
If there are any that you think I have missed, or have misrepresented, then please do get in touch through the usual channels. This rough set of notes is part of a suite of inputs that I am using with friends at King’s College London to develop a cultural data portal for the UK. I would love your thoughts. This is a live page and I’m updating it in response to feedback.
What do we mean by cultural data?
For me, arts and cultural data comes under three main headings: people, places and things. Let me elaborate:
- Data about people relates to: cultural workers, attendees, participants, volunteers, donors.
- Data about places relates to: organisations and institutions (their income, their art forms, their expenditure), locations like towns and cities (what assets they have, how money flows through the arts in those places) etc.
- Data about things relates to: objects in collections, public art, plays, performances and concerts.
Across all three data types there are frequently common dimensions like time and place.
I’ve tried to split up the various sites that currently serve as data portals according to some basic functions. The more feedback I get, the better I think I understand how to categorise them:
National/general arts and culture data portals
National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture
This is based at the University of Michigan and is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts as a way to fulfill their ambitions to open up public access to arts and cultural data in the United States. It’s a successor to CPANDA (which was based at Princeton University).
+ves: contains a lot of data and research reports, is great to see government agencies in the US support public access to data it collects
-ves: it takes many steps to reach the specific data that you are looking for, the presentation of the data is rather unattractive and expects a high level of stats knowledge
Another resource from the US. A collaboration between Fractured Atlas, Foundation Center and Harvard University. Currently with three localities available to explore: Bay Area, Detroit and Chicago. No registration needed, just dive right in to the data.
+ves: it’s a simple design (if a bit blocky) and serves up the main data sets that are available to people interested in the cultural lives of these localities, no expertise needed!
-ves: it’s a bit slow and buggy on my computer, allows for people to dive in and out of data types but not weave them together or across each other
Specific survey analysis tools
Taking Part Data Analysis Tool
Taking Part is a long-running survey of adult and child participation and attendance in art and culture (as well as heritage, archives and sport). It’s sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the UK and its arms-length bodies (including the Arts Council). This Tableau interface is a successor to the defunct (more comprehensive, though quite unwieldy) NetQuest tool.
+ves: presents a set of basic variables in a straightforward way
-ves: makes very little use of the rich multiplicity of analysis that could be done with the data
Not an arts and culture portal, but an essential accompaniment. DataShine is the product of the CASA lab at UCL and presents a variety of the data from the 2011 Census using a heat map of the United Kingdom. Because the census is a population-wide study, it permits the display of highly detailed data at a very specific geographic location.
+ves: the visually rich and colourful display is quite attractive, the types of data that you can display are the right essential variables
-ves: the depth and amount of data is almost overwhelming, and sometimes the display takes a while to load and adjust.
Audience Finder & Dashboard
Audience Finder is a grand concoction of hundreds of box office and ticketing databases from different arts and cultural organisations all around the country. For example, it allows for the identification of overlapping audiences between different theatres and concert halls. Versions of the vast data set are available to everyone. The data is usually displayed in a dashboard format (and mapping of audience data is also a feature).
+ves: the dashboard interface is nice and simple to use, and does not demand a huge amount of technical expertise
-ves: it can take a while to get access to the data that you really want, it’s not a quick in-and-out experience.
Data Arts is the successor to the Cultural Data Project, based out of Philadelphia. Like Audience Finder, it’s a subscription service for arts and cultural organisations that allows for data benchmarking of their own box office or audience data against their peers and other public data sets.
+ves: [same as Audience Finder]
-ves: [same as Audience Finder]
Arts Council Cultural Education Data Portal
A collection of statistics from public sources that are relevant to the world of cultural education. It is an evolution from the Local Data Profiles that were developed as part of the Culture and Sport Evidence Programme back in 2010. The interface is a simple patchwork of tiles with data that is automatically populated depending upon which Local Authority is selected from the drop-down menu at the top of the page
+ves: simple interface that is easy to navigate
-ves: doesn’t allow for cross-comparison or benchmarking outside of the confines of specific geographies
Individual datasets rendered in portals
Nesta Museums Map
The Nesta Museums Map is an interface that plots the location of every ‘Accredited Museum’ that’s within the Accreditation scheme overseen by Arts Council England. They’ve also been able to add in population data (density and deprivation levels) as extra things to display and explore.
+ves: this is a nice and simple ‘added value’ interface that takes existing data that was available in a spreadsheet and plots it geographically, the interface is nice and easy to explore.
-ves: ‘Accredited museums’ represent only part of the total number of museums in England. However, arriving at a comprehensive list or database is quite a challenge!
Digital Culture Data Portal
This is a relatively simple interface that displays data from the Digital Culture Surveys that the Arts Council have sponsored, and which were undertaken by the research agency MTM.
+ves: good that a data set like this can be explored online
-ves: not a wonderfully user-friendly or attractive interface
Artists Revenue Streams (Future of Music Coalition research)
This is an interface that allows users to play around with a data set that was generated through the Artists Revenue Streams research from 2011. It’s a really rich and visually engaging way to let people explore a data set and its many variables. Could it provide a model for the Artists Livelihoods project that the Arts Council sponsored last year?
+ves: instantly delivers a rich variety of information on a single page, nice design (despite the busyness of the page)
-ves: doesn’t link to other data sets that would be relevant to the questions and variables that are displayed in the portal
http://philly.spacefinder.org/spaces (e.g. Philadelphia)
This is a bridge between the maps above and the catalogues below. Created by the guys at Fractured Atlas. They say: “Through the SpaceFinder program, Fractured Atlas is increasing visibility of rental options, helping artists find the space they need, and helping venues promote and rent their spaces”
Open Inheritance Art UK
This is a new online portal that allows people to search and browse artwork which has been subject to the inheritance in lieu of tax scheme in the UK (which exempts art from inheritance tax on the basis that it will be available for public viewing). These works often remain in private collections behind closed doors and only available for viewing by appointment, at the owner’s convenience.
+ves: the categories on the home page are nice and easy to navigate, it’s great that someone has gone to the effort of putting this data online
-ves: the results served up by searches seem without much coherence or order, they are simply lists, why not have a map?
A catalogue that ostensibly will one day have every work of art on public display (and storage?) contained within it. Maybe it does already?
+ves: it has lots of fun routes through the data and art work collections
-ves: it’s not actually much of a useful tool for analysis of the collections or comparing X with Y
Many similar things exist in the form of:
Digital Public Library of America https://dp.la/
Open Culture http://www.openculture.com/
Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/
And many yet more specialist databases of cultural stuff:
e.g. OCRE http://numismatics.org/ocre/ (for fans of Roman coinage)
Open Data Portals
Geographic (eg LA County is particularly advanced)
There are an increasing number of Open Data Portals that act as repositories for data and data sets that can pertain to arts and cultural investments and assets in particular localities. They are frequently just data files (excel or csv) with singe sheets that relate to one or two connected variables. They are especially common in the US but are becoming increasingly common in the UK.
Have their own extensive directory of open data relevant to the culture sector.
Is another all-encompassing directory with some artsy stuff in there (see link above with results served up after a search for ‘art’)
APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are efficient ways to get hold of data in a one-off or recurring way from particular data providers or data owners. The above link is a collection of APIs that are relevant to those working in the museums and galleries sectors.
Previous expertise on this from Tony Hirst
Time to confess: I have form when it comes to data visualisation and arts and cultural data. Back in 2012 I worked with colleagues at the DCMS and its arms-length bodies to develop better ways to display cultural data as part of the Culture and Sport Evidence (CASE) Programme. I brought in Tony Hirst (an expert in open data and visualisation) to brief us on what was possible and feasible. The above link is the best route in to a selection of pages on his site which show what could and can be done with the CASE data.
It’s curious to me that there was a big blast of attention put to this sort of thing around five years ago. E.g. these (slightly moribund) sites are from that era:
http://www.museum-analytics.org/ (“an online platform for sharing and discussing information about museums and their audiences”)
It still seems difficult to display statistical data pertaining to arts and culture in an intuitive and attractive way, that retains an authentic link to the strengths and shortcomings of the original data sets. In developing the portal with King’s I want to ensure that the best design principles that we used to build CultureCase.org (high-quality search, simple design, zero expectation of expertise) are also deployed in the data portal.