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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Measure what you can: data to support innovation in the arts

In the first post in this series, we discussed how we had adapted the structure of the fund compared to the previous version by introducing an initial phase of activity prior to the call for applications. By introducing this additional phase, we front-loaded the process with a set of activities based around the use of a strategic planning tool called Theory of Change.

Having reflected on this phase, we are considering whether it would be helpful to add in an equivalent set of support around how arts organisations make best use of data. Here we’ll explain some of the reasons why we think this could be important.

Constantly make improvements

One of the long-term aims of this fund is to help to foster a culture of research and development in the arts sector. We want to support arts organisations to test out ideas they haven’t tried before, ideas that involve a degree of risk, but that have the potential to radically change the way they engage audiences or the way their business model operates.

It is the use of data that makes this ‘research and development’ as opposed to just supporting risky or untested ideas. All projects supported by the fund are required to develop a set of research questions and testable research propositions. They have to decide what to measure and how to measure it, and they have to publish their findings and the data on which those findings are based.

The use of data here is about having ways of regularly measuring and tracking the progress of your work, so that you can constantly make improvements. As described by one of the fund applicants quoted in a previous post, developing a long term goal that is observable and measurable can be “a good way of starting a process of learning.”

If we are to foster a culture of research and development in the arts sector more broadly, we have to help the arts sector to use valid research methods in ways that are resource efficient. For projects we have funded, there is a range of support in place with budget available for bringing in expertise around research, business development, communications and all manner of other subjects. Whilst we hope that some of these forms of support might become more common in the support provided by arts funders, we know they will not be available to everyone.

An important area of study for us is therefore about identifying the low cost ways that arts organisations can improve their use of data. We are still at a very early stage of developing our understanding at this point but there are two emerging examples that we feel merit further investigation. One is around bringing in specific expertise at board level, and we have seen some very clear benefits to individual arts organisations who have taken this approach. Another is about developing means of peer review, where networks are formed across the sector to undertake a process of shared learning around a particular challenge or opportunity.

Data before digital

Some of the feedback we received from arts organisations about the first phase of the fund was about how we approached ‘digital.’ During the first phase of activity we placed almost no explicit emphasis on digital technology at all. Some organisations felt that they needed us to give them a bit more support around digital specifically so that they could understand whether the fund would support the ideas they had in mind.

Yet it was a deliberate decision not to place an emphasis on digital technology at this stage. We wanted to establish the project ideas would be strategically important first, before supporting arts organisations to explore how digital technology could help.

The call for applications wasn’t completely open-ended, as we had identified two strategic themes – audience engagement and business models. We felt reasonably confident that practically any challenge related to these themes could provide a basis for usefully exploring many possible ways that digital technology could help.

The role of data in this context is about setting a measurable strategic goal against which the impact and value of a digital project can be assessed.

One of the main reasons this is important is to avoid technology-led projects that are not actually of real value to an organisation. Whilst ‘digital by default’ is clearly a sensible way of approaching publicly funded projects in the 21st century, ‘digital only’ is almost never the solution to anything.

The reason for this, as we see it, is that use of digital technology can rarely be separated from other social factors that contribute to the success of a project – your organisational culture, or the way your audience perceive you, for example. We have seen many digital projects that, whilst not necessarily a bad idea, have failed to achieve the intended benefits because they were not based on a full understanding of the context around a particular challenge.

Having a goal that is observable and measurable helps to ensure that these kinds of factors are not forgotten when planning and delivering a digitally focussed project.

Making best use of what we already have

Through the delivery of the first phase of the fund, we have seen how having a readily available set of data about your audiences or your business model can help to identify an observable and measurable longer term goal.

Some of the feedback we received from arts organisations during the first phase of the fund made the point that in order to properly engage with the Theory of Change workshops you needed to “bring a problem” with you. We agree, and we think there could be a role for data here too.

If you want to put forward a digital project idea that would seek to enhance audience reach and engagement, it is useful to be able to marshal data on existing audience composition and diversity, or data from previous feedback exercises.

Similarly, if you are looking to put forward a digital project idea that would seek to explore a new business model, it is useful to be able to describe current costs per unit of delivery, or the return on investment of other projects.

Most publicly funded arts organisations should in theory have some or all of that data available somewhere. In which case, it’s just a matter of digging it out, identifying which of the data you can use, cleaning up the useful stuff, and improving data capture in future where there are gaps.

We should introduce a note of caution here – we did also receive feedback from some smaller arts organisations that some of the methods we were advocating are very challenging for smaller organisations to apply due to their limited capacity. It is important that we don’t forget those arts organisations with fewer than five full-time staff members as they represent a considerable proportion of the publicly funded arts sector. This is where having low cost measures for making best use of data could be really important.

What can and should be measured

The applications that we received at the end of the first phase of the fund were generally strong on demonstrating the strategic importance of the proposed project. There was much less consensus amongst the selection panel when it came to assessing whether applications were successful in clearly defining the problem with a measurable outcome.

There are different views amongst our team and colleagues as to the extent to which it would be practical or desirable for arts organisations to be expected, in the long term, to become data experts.

Some feel that it is necessary to have much higher expectations around arts organisations' ability to marshall data in order to achieve more effective outcomes, greater accountability and more sustainable funding. Others take the opposite view, that this could lead to some very bad science, could undermine arts organisations accountabillity to the communities they serve, and could divert funding away from some of the most important work that publicly funded arts organisations currently carry out.

We can all agree, however, that supporting arts organisations to be more innovative must involve supporting them to make better use of data than is the case at present. This doesn’t mean trying to measure things that can’t be measured (or that don’t need to be measured), but becoming more adept at making better use of those things that can.

We will publish a full interim report later this month about the activities delivered during the first phase of the fund, including transcripts of all feedback comments we received from arts organisations. For more information about what the fund is currently working on please head to our new website, which is available in Welsh and in English.


Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Pennaeth Nesta Cymru / Head of Nesta Cymru

Rob is Head of Nesta Cymru - responsible for the delivery of Nesta's strategy in Wales.

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