Fewer Horsemen of Mediocrity, More Data Analytics

The Familiar, the Usual, and the Expected are the three mundane horsemen of mediocrity. Dressed head-to-toe in beige and taupe, these horrifying spectres have sensible haircuts, early bedtimes, and identical opinions. If it was up to them, nothing new or interesting would ever happen – it just isn’t worth the risk. Their counterpoints, on the other hand, bring the fun. The Unfamiliar, the Unusual and the Unexpected can be chaotic and destabilising – never leave them in charge of your home, your pets, or your plants. They are also highly energising and inventive, smashing ideas together like atoms and sparking fantastic creativity. Exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, it’s never boring in their company. They are the gate-keepers to every great idea you want to have.

The importance of venturing ‘outside my comfort zone’ is a cliched truth that I know, then forget about, then remember again, in a seemingly endless cycle. I get sucked into the habits of routine without even noticing, overpowered by the horsemen of mediocrity and their paint-dryingly dull tales of commuter timetables and putting the bins out. Just before slipping into a tedium-induced coma, I either deliberately or accidentally shake up my routine, shake off the horsemen, and welcome in the excitement of doing something differently. Travel is the best way to do this, ideally to a country where I don’t speak the language. Absolutely everything in that situation, from the belief systems to the bus tickets, is compelling. I also like the strangeness of getting back to the UK and seeing my home through changed eyes. What felt like a pokey ex-council flat on my departure can feel like a mansion on my return. And then everyday life re-establishes itself, and that exciting window into otherness closes again.

I wish that the solution to stultifying routine could always be ‘go to South America’, but this isn’t practical on an arts sector salary. There are countless smaller ways to embrace the unfamiliar, unusual and unexpected, and the easiest place to start is by breaking routine (the web can provide you with plenty of ‘brain-training’ and ‘neurobic’ suggestions). It was with this aim in mind that I attended Nesta’s free, one-day event, City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. On arrival, I scanned the room, recognised no-one, and was handed a small orange booklet titled, Using data in government and public services: a practical guide. ‘Perfect’, I thought to myself, ‘this is just the experience I’m looking for’. It was a fascinating day, and not least because so much of it was new to me. I left feeling really inspired – my head was buzzing with the potential of applying this ‘data analytics’ thinking to museums, galleries, and arts education.

So here are some of the things I learned…

Data is not just about numbers; it can be utilised as a means of problem-solving, making the case for change, working across services more efficiently and effectively, and preventing problems before they arise (especially around crime and healthcare). For Nesta, ‘information – based on data – can be applied towards two primary goals… making better decisions… [and] enabling better actions.’ The private sector is all over data and uses it to powerful effect, by instilling a need in the customer and then providing the solution, at a cost of course. The public sector is playing catch up, and is currently  investing heavily in using data to improve services. However, there is still some way to go in building trust between services – some authorities feel self-conscious about the uneven and patchy quality of their existing data, and there are also sensitivities around consent and privacy when handling personal information. The point was also made that data doesn’t solve every problem – the first task is to establish whether it is the most appropriate tactic for addressing the issue at hand. It also isn’t necessary to centralise data when sharing across providers. Rather than merge everything into one lump, it seems to be more about making connections and layering different datasets to reveal hidden patterns. There are changes coming to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018, the full impact of which I didn’t grasp, but it involves consent and the right to be forgotten (ie. to have one’s digital history erased). The ‘privacy impact assessment’ is a useful tool for checking that data usage remains on the right side of the law.

A particularly memorable example was shared by Pye Nyunt, Corporate Insight Hub Manager, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. There are 47 betting shops in the borough, and Pye walks past several of them every day in his commute between the train station and the town hall. Nyunt undertook a mapping exercise, layering the location of the betting shops, secondary schools (as children are a potential future market), the homes of adults with mental health issues, and a range of other categories to get a better understanding of their impact on the area. The bit about ‘kernel density proximations’ went over my head, but I tuned back in when Nyunt was talking about being able to identify hot spots in the borough and the knock-on effect for the community. He concluded that the council had an annual rental income of £300,000 from these betting shops, but the annual cost of addressing the negative consequences of gambling was closer to £800,000. In the words of another speaker at the event, data analytics move the conversation on from ‘I think this is a problem’ to ‘I know this is a problem’.

Katherine Rooney, City Innovation Project Manager for Open Data, Bristol City Council, shared wonderful examples of projects that are directly meeting community needs. Through consultation, it became clear that damp was a big issue across the city’s rental accommodation. To capture and understand the extent of the problem, and then identify a solution, tenants were given devices to record damp levels, with all of the information going back to Open Data for analysis. In an interesting twist, the devices were shaped like small green frogs. Using a friendly frog, instead of a personality-free black box, was a great way to get community buy-in (and the frogs generated possibly most questions at the event). Because this initiative was bottom-up instead of top-down, the level of take-up and community commitment was high. Rooney also shared the great example of Playable Cities, a community-driven initiative that turns Bristol into an enormous playground. Following a suggestion by a member of the public, one of the city’s steepest streets was turned into a huge water slide for the day.

Local authority councils across the country are investing serious resources into utilising data better. They take different names in different places – Office of Data Analytics, Insight Hub, Intelligence Approach, Open Data, Smart Cities – but the aim is the same. I don’t know which rock I’ve been perched on while all this has been happening. Perhaps I’m the last one to the party, but I haven’t heard of this growing asset being used in museums and galleries. Just think how that wealth of data could shape opinions on the value of the arts in the National Curriculum, or how it could help us prioritise communities for arts engagement, or even – the holy grail – measure the impact of local arts initiatives. (Do please get in touch if you have any examples.) If you want to dip your toe into a big dataset, check out the RSA’s Heritage Index, mapping heritage sites across the UK. Their 2016 update includes shipwrecks (!), ancient trees and war memorials, so there’s something for everyone.

As you can tell, I took a lot away from City Data Analytics: The Art of the Possible. It has given me an appetite for attending more events that have an oblique, rather than direct, connection with my work in art museum learning. The creative challenge of making links from their sector to mine was possibly the most mentally stimulating part of the day, and a whole world of new collaborations and ways of working has opened up. It should keep the horsemen at bay for a while…

 

Image from: http://www.myvintagelife.co.uk/sirdar-mans-classic-cardigan-knitting-pattern-2332b-1960s-4675-p.asp

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