Data Dump

An interesting discussion developed last week in the arts/theatre blogosphere around the issue of data.  Do we have enough? Do we use it? Should we spend any time looking for more of it? The last was answered with a resounding “No!” by Scott Walters, who threw down a gauntlet of sorts by challenging us to use existing data to change our behaviors, especially when it comes to social justice issues.  Diane Ragsdale made the excellent point that organizations often ignore the implications of data reports that they themselves commissioned. (Be sure to read the comments on both posts from Clayton Lord, an arts data expert.)

Into the middle of this discussion between people who read, use, and respect data, drops Marie Claire.  Yes, Marie Claire, the fashion/lifestyle magazine, on whose website was a “report,” supposedly based on a London School of Economics study that concludes that “People in Britain are most happy when having sex, doing exercise and visiting the theatre.”  The theatre/audience development sector of my twitterverse exploded with ideas  (and lots of jokes) about how the sex-exercise-theatre trifecta could be exploited to boost attendance.  London School of Economics?  There must be data, right?  This would be an extraordinarily good kind of data, one that puts theatre on the same plane as sex — actionable data! I followed the LSE link on the Marie Claire website but could not find the study at all.  I used my university links to research databases and couldn’t find anything there either.  Even without finding the actual research report (if it exists), the study is statistically suspect: only iPhone users who download the app are counted; only Britons; no indications of controls for age, gender, income, etc.

As access to and authorship of  information and data becomes democratized, how will people sort through the good from the bad?  The rigorous from the frivolous? I’ve been thinking lately that with so much information available for free, and resources like posting meaningful lectures on line, the university professoriate as we know it will cease to exist in 10-20-50 (pick a number) years. Perhaps the faculty, we in the over-educated and often over-worked meritocracy of the higher education system will need to redefine our role as one of differentiation, of helping people understand that the study from Grantmakers in the Arts is more robust than the one published by Marie Claire.  Perhaps we will become garbage pickers on the trash-heap of data dumped into cyberspace.  Or, perhaps I’m just having a bad day.

As a postscript, I note that there is an analog here to another recent blogosphere/twitterverse conversation about criticism incited by what many, myself included, thought was a rather naïve comment from Michael Kaiser about the “trend” of online popular criticism being “scary.”  Interestingly (at least to me) was that the discussion revolved exclusively around criticism by professional arts journalists versus criticism by the general public as written and read by many on blogs and websites.  Yet, there is serious, theoretically grounded, criticism produced by scholars all the time, but it’s read by the very few.  Perhaps if we could get past the firewall of academic publishing and the tenure and promotion decisions based thereon, more people would read and engage with this work too, and we won’t be relegated to another kind of trash heap.

Computer Garbage Pile from

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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11 Responses to Data Dump

  1. Clayton Lord says:

    And to Scott’s question of what this might ultimately be useful for, I would both say that yes, it might be a parlor trick and also that it might be a lot more. In the UK and other countries in Europe, governments are making more of an effort to focus on overall well-being as an economic indicator, on the argument that such measurement ultimately ensures a stronger, more productive workforce (and, incidentally, society). There’s a whole slew of research being done on happiness in this context, and it’s being taken quite seriously. Happiness is an indicator of length of life, of productivity, of decreased likelihood of recidivism. And if, as this research might or might not portend, art sits at the center of happiness, then why is that trivial? Why is that just marketing? Why isn’t that a potential new, strong, powerful angle to use in expressing our worth to people who find art worthless?
    And to point it out, of sex, exercise, and theatre, theatre isn’t the only one that currently receives government funding. The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition distributes millions of dollars each year as grants, and also creates advertising campaigns around activity, obesity, fitness, etc. Why does such a council exist (and why have multiple of the last First Ladies chosen things related to the council for their special non-threatening cause)? Because exercise is viewed as a public good. It is tied by data to things Ike increased longevity, increased happiness, decreased recidivism. In short, the same things that the Mappiness work may (may) portend.

    • lindaessig says:

      Clayton makes what I think is an important point relative to this data: it is a decidedly British study. Governments there and elsewhere in Europe are looking more and more at “subjective well-being” (aka happiness) as a metric not only of the health of its citizens but as a metric of the health of the nation writ large. It is considered, in some cases, to be as or more important than per capita GDP as a measure of the both physical and economic health of the citizenry. Great Britain, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries seem way out in front not only on this but also on the study (and subsequent funding) of “the creative industries,” a concept that hasn’t really caught on here in the US. This recent article is a good example of potentialities of that trend.

  2. Scott Walters says:

    Perhaps you can explain why this data is in any way interesting or useful. As a touchstone for clever marketing slogans? Are we ever going to get past superficial studies of of style and actually address content? Note that, of the three things listed, theatre is the only one that requires government funding.

    • lindaessig says:

      Scott: I don’t think the data *is* useful, at least not as currently published, which is my point. If there is something to be gained for theatre or the arts more broadly from this particular study, it will likely be in the areas of marketing and audience development. It would be unlikely to result in the kind of systemic change you have been advocating.

      • Clayton Lord says:

        Ack! Really? Who knows whether this data is useful or not? Who knows whether it, and the research it might spawn into, for example, overall happiness as it might relate to productivity, longevity, etc, might in fact encourage systematic change? And why is it so problematic if it doesn’t? I find this whole line of argument, that we need to focus on the stuff we think we know is going to work the best, really frustrating. In the middle of the last century, one guy created a longitudinal research study looking at some kids he gave an extra year of schooling (the Perry Preschool Study) and almost single-handedly instigated the massive, systemic change that ultimately resulted in the First Five program, the proliferation of kindergarten and preschool more widely, etc etc. That might have been for nothing – surely it was a lot of work, and it drew his attention away from other things. And yet look at the fruit. Scott, I take your point that we need to maximize the research we have–and am pleased that the NEA seems to be encouraging that as well with its new grants focused on mining existing datasets–but let’s not get into a situation where everything has to be proven worthwhile before we deem it necessary or interesting to pursue. And Linda, I also take your point that this research is raw and untested–but I’m not thinking the (unresearched, admittedly, slightly incredulous, maybe)press is a bad thing–and if it ends up changing the world, well at least we can look back on these early articles and see where it came from.

      • Clayton Lord says:

        Sorry, a small correction. I said the Perry Preschool Study was related to the launch of First Five – I meant to say Head Start. Apologies…

  3. Clayton Lord says:

    (I posted this reply on New Beans, too)…

    I agree, Linda, the Marie Claire piece (and even more disappointing the New Yorker piece, even if it was only online) were bad journalism at their very worst – it took me one email and a Skype call to get some hard facts about the work. Yeesh.

    To your questions – Mappiness (the app) has had 45,000 users over it’s lifetime of about 18 months, and users tend to lose interest after about 6 months of reporting on average. They currently have about 1,000 active users. Users are asked to provide basic demographics, so presumably they can indeed get to things like racial, age, etc bias (and I expect that the data, when analyzed that way, will probably show that the 3,500 theatre data points out of the 3 million data point sample were (1) from a relatively small pool of people and (2) from a relatively homogenous group of people in the way we all would expect). I don’t get the impression they’ve really done that yet, but I know they do have a paper in prep on the more general findings, particularly as it relates to location, which is actually his main focus.

    When you sign up for the app, which is free, and which I did, you generally agree to the terms, and then answer questions about general happiness (I assume as a baseline), general health, asthma (?), gender, birth year, marital status, employment status, household make-up, income level, and how that income level has varied in the past 3 years. Interestingly, not race, not sexual orientation, and no particulars about profession, which I might consider potential blind spots, although perhaps moreso in the US than in England.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of getting this to work in the US, though I agree that it presupposes a certain group of people (those, if nothing else, who can afford an iPhone and know how to download an use an app). In a way, those presuppositions make the findings all the more intriguing, as that group (except for the affluence) is actually demographically off from our suppositions, or at least i would think – probably younger, more diverse, more plugged in, and less generally likely to be the ones who would attend the arts. But perhaps that’s an English thing.

    I’ve emailed George to see if he’d be willing to connect more about this…we’ll see. In the meantime, thanks for the comment, and I’d love further thoughts!

    • lindaessig says:

      Maybe a three-way skype call? and, I can tell you from recent experience that being in the midst of a 2-month long asthma flare-up definitely dims happiness — but the weeds will die off soon and I’ll be able to enjoy all this AZ sunshine — hours of which should be a control variable in a happiness study too.

  4. Clayton Lord says:

    Oh, also, he did apparently control (or at least track) basic demographics, and he’s not claiming it to be any more expansive than the UK. But it is a large dataset (3 million data points in 18 months).

  5. Clayton Lord says:

    Hey Linda,
    Thanks for the kind descriptor 🙂 — I just wrote about the LSE study — I couldn’t find it either when I went to look, and it turns out he hasn’t published results yet (so I don’t know where Marie Claire got its info, except perhaps from his TEDx talk). That said, I spoke with him and got some more specifics, and it’s really interesting–and also not really his focus. But take a look at my latest blog entry–he’s still mining data, and he’s interested in an arts research partner as the arts aren’t his field–but it’s not just puffery. There’s something there…

    • lindaessig says:

      (I posted this as a comment on your blog as well)
      Clayton: Nobody is happier than me that this research is actually happening and that preliminary results are trending toward the positive for the arts. I remain concerned, however, about publicizing this kind of research (in a fashion magazine) without the contextualizing information needed to really interpret the results, the kind of information one would expect from econometric research regarding methodology, sample size, and so on. So, a big THANK YOU for providing some of that on your blog. I wonder especially about the sampling strategy. Did you discuss that? Are the iPhone app users people who are pre-disposed to be arts consumers anyway (well-educated, economically advantaged, etc), and how are they controlling for that? Most important question of all: Perhaps we can all put our heads together about replicating this study in the US??? (What would it mean if attending a NASCAR race pops up in the top three with exercise and sex, both of which engender physiological changes (the release of endorphins) that we interpret as happiness?)

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