As a research consultancy we spend a lot of our time thinking about the way cultural organisations use data and information. The topic of data visualisation is an increasingly important one. Presenting information clearly and effectively can have great advantages for increasing public engagement and accountability. This is a broad debate, but it is certainly one that is relevant to the cultural sector. Data visualisations, such as those of David McCandless or Jess Bachman can be extremely beautiful objects of design in their own right. There is also a certain beauty in being engaged and informed. Visualisation can help with communication about what the cultural sector does, including some of its more prosaic elements.
An ideal visualisation should be able to communicate the key aspects of otherwise sparse and complex data sets in an intuitive way that stimulates the engagement and attention of the viewer. However, we also need to acknowledge the design choices that are made in creation of a visualisation. Choices of what or how to visualise may be biased in much the same way as statistical data can be in press reports. Visualisations may distort, or draw attention to different elements of data. Edward Tufte has been particularly influential in advocating clear and accurate styles of presenting information that minimise unintentional bias.
The picture on this page is a simple visualisation produced by uploading Arts Council England’s data on 2009/10 investment and ONS national population data to IBM’s ‘ManyEyes’ platform (a free tool for data visualisation). It clearly shows that there is a disproportionate distribution of spending across the regions in relation to their population. There are, of course, arguments both for and against this model of funding. The key question is – are the people whose money is being distributed in this way even aware of it? The spreadsheet of data is public, but it is not the most accessible way to get information out there.
Visualisations like this can be used within organisations and publicly to promote debate; to allow people to come together on a specific issue and draw upon reasoned evidence. The sector has a need to get people to engage with its activities. Platitudes do not win support for the arts externally and tend only to reach those audiences who are already supportive.
We need to inform people. This may be scary, and could raise all manner of questions about the social value and worth of the arts. But we should encourage and relish the debates that will be stimulated, rather than shying away from them. Understanding and ownership isn’t just about cultural products, but about institutions and organisations, which are often doubly funded both by the taxpayers and by lottery patrons through government distribution of funds and ticket sales.
Note: click to enlarge