Museums and data collection
Browsing around online this week, I saw a picture – a heatmap visualisation – that showed the paths visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago take as they move through the museum's million square feet of display space.
Once, this information would have to be collected by hand, through visitor surveys or physically tracking people. Today, the information is easily and cheaply collected by tracking visitors' smartphone connections to the museum's wifi network.
We live in a time where we constantly exchange personal information for convenience or access. We hand over contact details, and dates of birth for loyalty cards at stores in exchange for discounts and marketing. We buy from sites like Amazon, which store our browsing and shopping behaviour and use this to tailor the information they present to us, and others. We organise and communicate our lives through social networks, which sell our attention on to advertisers. Our behaviour is commoditised, predicted, and traded in an opaque, yet increasingly valuable, market.
Collecting information about visitors has been an imprecise business for museums and galleries. Hand counting, automated door counters and visitor surveying didn’t enable visitor surveillance. But, as a paper called 'Mobiles Phones and Visitor Tracking' presented at the 2011 American Museums and the Web conference observed of this new use of smartphone tracking:
"the opportunity not only to track the paths of visitors unobserved, but also to record anything from their overall dwell time in the museum to dwell times in front of specific exhibits, their previous visits to the museum and the time between visits, and even the country where their phone is registered, has the potential to dramatically assist museums in areas from exhibit design to marketing."
Methods aside from involuntary tracking are in widespread use. MONA's O device replaces wall panels with interpretation delivered via an iPod - and collects information about where visitors went and how long they spent in front of each work. The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, the Ask App at the Brooklyn Museum and the text message-based rewards programme at the Dallas Museum of Art all collect information about visitor movements. Each tracks the galleries and objects that do and don't attract visitors' time and attention.
None of this is inherently evil, of course. And having data to back up observations and anecdotal feedback on what visitors are doing and enjoying (or not doing and not enjoying) is invaluable.
At the same time, the imbalance of knowledge between what institutions are doing and what visitors are aware of makes me uneasy. As does the way our ability to easily collect and store data about our visitors vastly outstrips the resource we can apply to managing that data now and into the future.
Concerns about the collection, security and use of data – from shaming philanders on dating sites to influencing national elections – are hardly new.
A theme in this discourse that I find fascinating is the comparison of the data age with the nuclear age. Internet thinkers Cory Doctorow and Maciej Ceglowski have compared the responsibility of managing nuclear power to that of data power: as far back as 2008 Doctorow wrote that "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." Ceglowski echoed this thought at the 2015 O'Reilly Big Data conference, saying we should think of reservoirs of stored data as "not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle", and going on to say "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."
It is easy, in a time of falling public funding and increased competition for the philanthropic dollar, to imagine a scenario where selling visitor data to third parties becomes an appealing (or necessary) scenario. 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. As institutions trusted to collect, preserve and manage society's material culture and expressions of creativity and knowledge, we need to apply the same forethought and ethics to the data we collect from and use on behalf of the public, always asking - who benefits from our data collections, and how do we keep our people and institutions safe?