Wednesday 1 June 2016

Cultural institutions and the social compact

An essay included in the first issue of the New Zealand Emerging Museums Professionals publication, Tauhere | Connections, May 2016


In August 2015, with the assistance of a Winston Churchill Fellowship, I made a research trip around art museums in seven states in America exploring, amongst other things, trends in digital development and engagement in art museum. In November I was invited to take part in to a panel discussion at the National and State Libraries of Australasia event ‘Linked Up, Loud and Literate: Libraries enabling digital citizenship’.(1)

I used this as an opportunity to investigate a strand of digital practice that had  really struck me during my conversations with colleagues in American museums: the increasing collection and analysis of visitor data gathered using digital methods, rather than surveys or visitor-trailing. The key development in this field is the introduction of a new breed of museum membership where, unlike traditional memberships (where you pay an annual fee for free access to a paid-entry museum) you trade your data for access and benefits.

The leading exponent of this new membership model is the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). Under (recently departed) director Maxwell Anderson, over the past three years the DMA has removed entry charges from general admission shows at the museum, and introduced a new entry-level ‘Friends’ offer to its membership programme.(2)

When you sign up for the programme, using a kiosk at the Museum, you provide your contact details and your postcode information. In return, you are admitted to a programme where, through various activities, you can gain 'points' that can be traded in for benefits.(3)  For example, if you collect sufficient points, you can having your parking charges redeemed. In a city where the car is king, free parking as part of your gallery is a compelling inducement to taking part in the programme. More points get you better access, more special and desirable rewards.

From a dataset of more than 100,000 signed-up Friends, the DMA is able to collect information about which galleries are visited, which programmes are attended, and which rewards are most desirable. Using the postcode information allows them to see where visitors are coming from and, by comparing this information to census data, draw conclusions about which demographics their visitors represent - at scale.

The DMA is currently using this information to understand which communities they are reaching and not reaching, under-serving and over-serving. The more time they invest in gathering and interrogating this data, the more of a data-driven organisation they can become: carrying out targeted programming, marketing and community outreach activities, and measuring whether these activities have discernible impacts on visitor behaviour.

On the one hand, I am in favour of, and admiring of, this approach. It is all too easy to rely on anecdotal information and your own perceptions of your audience and the success of your initiatives. However, I also have reservations about these activities that boli down to the risk of them becoming – in a colloquial but accurate wording in terms of the felt affect – creepy.

We have become accustomed to trading our data for convenience and for access. We hand over contact details and dates of birth for loyalty cards at companies that then bombard us with marketing offers. We buy from sites like Amazon, which store our browing and shopping behaviour and use this to tailor the information that is presented to us, and to others. We hand over our data merrily, and maybe without thought for how this data is being stored, analysed, and shared.

If we look at the DMA's privacy policy, it states
We sometimes provide personal information to other providers of goods and services so that they may assist us in connection with ticket sales, event promotion, fundraising, or otherwise in connection with providing services or merchandise to you. However, we require that those providers use personal information only for that purpose, and we require our providers to provide assurances that they will appropriately protect personal information entrusted to them.(4)  
A growing number of American museums are ramping up their collection of data in order to increase engagement for the purposes of visitor acquisition, retention and conversion. One museum I met with was planning on implementing the DMA's software with a new free entry-level membership offer, with the same intent of understanding visitor demographics. They also had however a clear plan for using this information – this personalisation – for targeted marketing campaigns, and to convert visitors to shoppers, shoppers to donors: effectively, using visitor data to maximise revenue. At the Museums and the Web Asia conference in Melbourne in October 2015, Diana Pan from the Museum of Modern Art showed statistics derived from members’ shopping behaviour, and explained how MOMA had tweaked its retail offer in response to patterns they saw.(5)

As well as giving us information to improve the relevance of our programmes, tackle inequality of access, and increase revenue, data can sometimes tell us things we'd rather not hear.

Colleen Dilenschneider is a consultant with an American company that specialises, among other things, in the application of data analysis in the non-profit sector. She writes and presents regularly on data as it relates to cultural and visitor organisations. In a November 2015 blog post she crunched the data on free admission days, the monthly free days many paid-entry museums in the US run in the hopes of reducing the barriers to access for non-traditional visitors (read: those who are lower-earning, more geographically distanced, less educated and from a different racial or ethnic background to your average white middle-class middle-aged museum member).(6)

The data as Dilenschneider analysed it shows that free admission days do not attract underserved audiences. Dilenschneider's research shows that:

  • Admission price is not identified as the chief barrier to access
  • Free access days attract higher earning and higher educated attendees than paid access days
  • Free access days do not tempt non-visitors, but rather accelerate the speed at which an existing visitor revisits
  • Cultural organisations generally don't know how to, or don't effectively, market free access days to underserved audiences but instead use their email databases, social media platforms and regular marketing outlets to tap the people they are already reaching. 

These are unsettling things for the very well-meaning people who run museums to hear.

Dilenschneider's company generates these insights by buying data from many sources: the data of people just like us. They then analyse this data and sell that analysis and consultancy services back to cultural organisations: just like ours. I should note that Dilenschneider is not at all covert about this, and in fact that her company has been very generous in allowing her to share this data and information as freely as she does.(7)

There's no escaping the fact though that companies are being built and money being made on the bounty of the ocean of data we are all drip feeding into.

Concern about the collection, security  and use of data – from the outing of philanders on dating sites to a former CIA director's statement "we kill people based on metadata” – are hardly new.(8)  But with my heightened awareness due to what I’d seen and heard in America primed me to pay particular attention as I was preparing for this talk to a series of references that floated across my radar that shared a common theme: the comparison of data technology to nuclear technology.

In the Guardian in 2008, Cory Doctorow wrote:
We should treat personal electronic data with the same care and respect as weapons-grade plutonium – it is dangerous, long-lasting and once it has leaked there's no getting it back.(9)
Doctorow at that time proposed that data should be embargoed for 200 years, that anyone who touches or cares for that data over that period must be properly trained, and that businesses and government must be made to bear the costs associated with this.

At the start of October Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski spoke at O'Reilly Media's Big Data conference. Aiming to puncture the bubble of data enthusiasts, he painted a purposefully grim picture of data as, in his words,
not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle.(10) 
Ceglowski drew an explicit link between data technology and nuclear technology, as two powerful innovations whose ‘beneficial uses we could never quite untangle from the harmful ones.’

Like Doctorow, Ceglowski describes the similarity between data and nuclear waste; a material that has the potential to last far longer than the institutions we build to manage it. He stated
information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades.
He also noted that data technology is creating a situation where people are reacting to the manipulations of big data, purposefully gaming systems, forcing an ever-evolving arms race between data collectors and data creators that creates more distance between us as humans, not more understanding.

Finally, British artist and technologist James Bridle recently wrote an essay, based on a talk he gave at the 'Through Post-Atomic Eyes' event in Toronto, that name-checked the two above pieces.(11) Bridle has written and made work extensively about mass surveillance, and in this piece he drew a parallel between the Cold War that nuclear technology locked the world into for 45 years and the potential of big data today. As he notes, even though the information we collect about human behaviour grows and grows and grows, our sympathy and empathy and connection across politics, races, religions and nations do not leap forward at the same pace.

We in cultural organisations think of ourselves as the white hats and the good guys. Libraries in particular have a strong ethos of free and protected access to information. The siren call of data is strong however, and we will all soon, if we're not already, have to ask ourselves: who benefits from the data we collect, and how we keep each other safe?

A coda

When I gave this talk, I purposefully took a cautious attitude towards the activity of data collection by cultural organisations, and painted a dark picture of a field that can be intelligently managed. My concern, as a museum director but also as a technologist at heart, lies with the tendency of people who are not versed in the conversations around data management to fall for vendors’ pitches without applying a sufficiently sceptical lens to their claims. This concern was proved valid when earlier this year I heard a museum director talking about hardware they were about to insert into their gallery doorways, which would collect the IMEI (unique identifier) of every switched-on mobile phone that entered the building. This is vastly appealing to me as a director, for the ability to cheaply and accurately measure how many repeat visitors you have to your museum and how frequently they visit. It is also terrifying to me as a technologist, in terms of the way it invades an individual’s privacy and surveils their physical passage through the world.

At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked how we could collect and manage data responsibly. I offer up Ceglowki’s advice as a starting point for you:

Don't collect it! 
If you can get away with it, just don't collect it! Just like you don't worry about getting mugged if you don't have any money, your problems with data disappear if you stop collecting it....  
If you have to collect it, don't store it! 
... You can get a lot of mileage out of ephemeral data. There's an added benefit that people will be willing to share things with you they wouldn't otherwise share, as long as they can believe you won't store it. ... 
If you have to store it, don't keep it! 
Certainly don't keep it forever. Don't sell it to Acxiom! Don't put it in Amazon glacier and forget it.  
I believe there should be a law that limits behavioral data collection to 90 days, not because I want to ruin Christmas for your children, but because I think it will give us all better data while clawing back some semblance of privacy.

(1) Linked Up, Loud and Literate: Enabling Digital Citizenship

(2) The Dallas Museum of Art Friends programme More information about my research into American museum membership programmes is available here, including links to many more articles and sources.

(3)  Points can be gained in a multitude of ways: by bringing people to the museum and recruiting them into the programme, by collecting codes posted at the entries to different galleries, by taking part in public programme events, through scavenger hunts, and so on.

(4) DMA Friends privacy statement

(5) Diana Pan and Manish Engineer, ‘The 360-Degree View: Why An Integrated CRM Platform is Important in Growing a Museum’s Membership Program’, Museums and the Web Asia, Melbourne, October 2015

(6) Colleen Dilenschneider, ‘Free  admission days do not actually attract udnerserved Visitors’, Know Your Own Bone, 4 November 2015

 (7) See the information page on Dilenschneider’s website and her frequent public presentations

(8) David Cole, ‘We Kill People Based on Metadata’, New York Review of Books, 10 May 2014

(9) Cory Doctorow, ‘Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste’, The Guardian, 15 January 2008

(10) Maciej Ceglowski, ‘Haunted by Data’, talk given on 1 October 2015, All quotes from Ceglowski are drawn from this talk.

(11) James Bridle, ‘Big Data, No Thanks’,, 2 November 2015

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