Will data sharing rules threaten funding?

Arts Council England is to introduce new conditions to funding, forcing its national portfolio organisations to share their audience data. But it’s a rule that threatens to shut many organisations out of the NPO process altogether, says Michael Nabarro

Arts Council England’s new requirement for sharing of audience data as a condition of national portfolio organisation funding has made quite a splash. Leading figures are calling it a great thing for the sector – ‘the future’ – but even in the age of digital, working collaboratively with data in the arts is going to be harder than it sounds. ACE’s demand raises operational and strategic concerns,  that could leave many organisations floundering.

What ACE needs to remember is that many still don’t have a meaningful capability to manage and interpret audience data. The arts sector has been underserved by technology for too long and whilst most organisations will have a database of audience information, the quality and completeness of data varies widely. Establishing and maintaining data feeds to an outside system can be a lot of work and requires reliable and user-friendly technology that is well supported.

It begs a number of questions that the Arts Council needs to address. Primarily, if arts organisations don’t have a suitable system or a reliable database of audience information (or don’t have the resources to invest in a better one), is the door to NPO funding effectively closed?

We are also without a firm and widely agreed arts sector standard for data collection, collaboration and transmission. It’s a safe assumption that further guidance will be coming via The Audience Agency but that clarity will be needed soon, as there are technical and legal challenges related to data sharing that must be addressed at the outset.

Foremost on many people’s minds will be more detail on what aggregate means in practice. For example: what information is to be shared specifically, at what level of personalisation, in what data format, at what frequency, and from what time period? EU data protection rules will of course need to be strenuously adhered to. With 2015 deadlines looming it would be good to have the precise requirement soon.

Another area where clarity would be welcome is in quantifying the benefit of national data sharing for arts organisations at the local level. A smaller theatre reliant on state funding and philanthropy could foreseeably be asked to share data in a pool that includes a larger entity down the road. What is ACE proposing to deliver back to organisations that will help them improve audience development, engagement and overall attendance?

Looking across the sector, the level of comfort with data as a decision-making tool is still too low. There are both leaders and laggards, but also a fair few who simply don’t have the resources to properly upskill.

It’s here where ACE is in danger of putting the cart before the horse. So much more can be done at the venue and company level that gathering everyone’s top line audience data into one megabase seems premature. If used effectively it will certainly yield benefits, but I would respectfully suggest the Arts Council look at that later down the line, after helping organisations build internal capacity to manage and use data strategically.

The real value of data is not in statistics but in strengthening audience relationships. That means going beyond ‘they attended this before so they might like it again’ approach, and identifying propensities based on a mix of factors that cross genre, demographics, booking behaviour and other data points. When the skills sets are in place to do that, theatres can start communicating with their members and followers in sync with individual preferences and buying behaviours. Showing customers that we know and understand them by reaching out with the right communications at the right time is an achievable goal everyone should be happy to get behind.

As Emma Stenning, executive director of the Bristol Old Vic, told me: ‘ACE is right that there are tremendous potential benefits from our increased sharing of data, but, more than that, we need to be smarter and more strategic about how we use the data when we’ve got it. Most of us barely touch the analytical capacity of the systems we have in house; when they can and should be helping us get the most compelling message to the best targeted audience.’

Sharing information to improve understanding of sector-wide trends is an excellent idea, and looking at the long-term health of the arts sector ACE is certainly on the right track. Compelling organisations to share data under the whip crack of funding eligibility, however, is unlikely to work.

Creating a UK arts data pool will need to happen in phases; with cross-sector education and improved capability for data-driven decision making being the first major step. We need to walk before we can run and ACE is by far the best organisation to lead us on that path.

Michael Nabarro is co-founder of Spektrix