State of the art: Analysing where art meets technology using social network data

Technology shapes the space of creative possibilities artists and designers work within. The UK has one of the highest levels of creative industries employment in Europe.[1] Employment that is likely to become increasingly technologically sophisticated.[2] There is therefore interest in obtaining a better understanding of activities that combine artistic and technological skills. To further thinking in this area, we have studied some of this activity in our report State of the Art which is published today.

Analysing activities combining art and technology has challenges. These activities often span multiple domains, so are harder to capture in surveys or fit into neat categories. Data from the social networking platform provides one way to try and address this. Meetup is an internet platform that allows users to create groups (‘Meetup groups’) to host events on topics related to the group’s theme. At Nesta we have previously used Meetup data to understand activity in the UK’s digital tech sector.[3]

This kind of data has some limitations, it will not, of course, capture activities that do not use the platform and will under-represent activities and places that are less likely to use it.[4] One particular area that is likely to be under-represented is activity within institutions such as universities and companies. Nevertheless, Meetup data provides the opportunity to look at a potentially rich source of data and offers an up to date starting point on the activities at the interface of art and tech that people are engaging with around the UK.

There is, perhaps inevitably, a degree of subjectivity as to what activities should be included in an assessment of art-tech related activity. In recognition of the importance of artistic skills in a range of different areas, we have adopted a broad definition of artistic activity that is wider than fine art, including design, music, computer games, visual effects, fashion and photography. As almost all artistic activity involves some form of technology, we have tried to focus this by looking at activities involving newer technologies and where there is more intense technological engagement. In general terms, we have used text information on artistic domains, and different technologies (hardware related e.g. 3D printing and software related e.g. Pro Tools, Autodesk and Photoshop) to identify groups that are more likely to be engaged in art-tech activity. We have then refined further to identify 334 groups involved in combining art and technology.[5]

The report finds that London accounts for a high proportion of Meetup activity relating to art-tech. This is partly because London in general accounts for a high proportion of all UK activity in Meetup, but even allowing for this, more art-tech groups were found in London than would be expected on the basis of general Meetup activity alone. Other areas where levels of art-tech Meetup activity were more than expected on the basis of general Meetup activity included Brighton and Bristol. This is consistent with findings from previous Nesta work, that these areas have high proportions of high-tech or creative employment relative to their UK workforce share. This being the kind of employment one would expect to underlie activity at the interface of art and technology.[6] At a more local level, one of the places where artistic and technical skills are found to be being combined is in makerspaces.[7]

To look at connections between different kinds of art-tech activity we examined people’s participation in multiple Meetup groups among the London groups (this being the area with the most scope for joint membership). The picture below shows the different Meetup groups represented by dots, with groups connected if they have more than 10 members in common (The labels correspond, in general terms, to the kinds of activities in different parts of the network. The graph is coloured using a clustering algorithm with groups coloured the same if they are more closely connected than one would expect by chance.).[8]

A number of distinct, but connected, communities emerge. There are a set of photographic groups with common members, a set of interconnected games programming and virtual reality groups, and sitting between these are, broadly speaking, groups involved in 3D printing, digital design, filmmaking and data visualisation. Analysing group membership does not necessarily reveal the strength of individual’s engagement with the groups and larger groups will account for more joint membership. Nevertheless, it seems possible that the indications of connections between different domains could reflect a trend of integrated artistic and technical skills enabled by digital technology.

Relatively few of the art-tech groups identified were explicitly fine-art related.[9] This may relate to artists being more likely to use to use other platforms like Eventbrite or being less likely to use online platforms to engage with each other - so this activity will not be captured by our approach. It could though also reflect levels of technological use among the fine art community and perhaps there are more opportunities for combining the two in future.[10]

A characteristic of some of the technologies examined such as the Internet of Things, Virtual Reality and 3D printing is that they offer greater scope for increased personalisation. This already happens in computer games, but it seems likely that personalised experiences could become more pervasive in the arts. Technological change should make it easier to generate tailored objects and experiences through indirect feedback or direct co-creation[11] increasingly resulting in artistic experiences that are, by design, both personal and universal.


[1] Nathan, M., Pratt, A. and Rincon-Aznar, A. (2015), ‘Creative economy employment in the EU and the UK a comparative analysis’.

[2] For examples of some of the ways that new technology is being used in a creative context, see the recent works by Openshaw, J. (2015) ‘Postdigital Artisans: Craftsmanship with a New Aesthetic in Fashion, Art, Design and Architecture’; Johnston, L. (2015) ‘Digital Handmade: Craftsmanship and the New Industrial Revolution’; HOLO 1 (2014) ‘Emerging trajectories in art, science and technology.’; Klanten, R., Ehmann, S. and Hanschke, V. eds. (2011) ‘A Touch of Code: Interactive Installations and Experiences’; Dunn, N. (2012) ‘Digital Fabrication in Architecture’ and Reas, C. and McWilliams, C. (2010) ‘Form and Code in Design, Art, and Architecture.’ and Digital R&D fund for the Arts (2013 and 2015),’Digital Culture: How arts and cultural organisations in England use technology’.

[3] Mateos-Garcia, J. (2015), ‘Using Meetup data to explore the UK’s digital tech landscape’, Nesta blog.

[4] The data was collected by querying the Meetup API in November 2015 to obtain information on Meetup groups in the UK resulting in information on 14,800 groups being obtained.

[5] These groups will not capture all artistic activity involving technology on Meetup. There will be groups involved in the activity where this is not captured in the words used, or where the activity is identified from the textual information, but the activity that the groups engaged with is in practice relatively limited. Nevertheless, this hopefully minimises false positives and provides a starting point for thinking about this area.

[6] Bakhshi, H., Davies, J., Freeman, A, Higgs, P. (2015), ‘The Geography of the UK’s high-tech and creative economy’.

[7] For a detailed report on UK Makerspaces in general see: Sleigh, A., Stewart, H. and Stokes, K. (2015), ‘Open dataset on UK Makerspaces: A users guide’.

[8] The analysis was undertaken using the graph modularity algorithm in gephi. The algorithm partitions the graph of the network’s nodes into a set of communities (i.e. each community being a group of nodes) that aims to maximise modularity of the graph. The modularity being the number of connections that fall within communities for a given partition relative to the expected number of connections within the communities if connections were generated at random. A community partition characterised by higher modularity is thus less likely to have arisen by chance.

[9] Meetup groups have a set of mutually exclusive categories in their platform information, one of which is fine art/culture.

[10]In terms of public exhibitions related to this area the first UK exhibition devoted to computer art, Cybernetic serendipity was held at the ICA in 1968. Recent major public exhibitions have been Decode: Digital design sensation at the V&A in 2011, Digital Revolutions at the Barbican in 2014, the recent Somerset House Big Bang Data exhibition and current Whitechapel Electronic superhighway exhibition.

[11] For an example of this, see the work of Assa Ashuach in allowing people to cocreate their own 3D printed objects.



John Davies

John Davies

John Davies

Principal Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

John was a data scientist focusing on the digital and creative economy. He was interested in the interface of economics, digital technology and data.

View profile