Culture Hack Day: Why freeing our cultural data is so important to the future of the arts

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 1 March 2011

Last week I attended an evening debrief about Culture Hack Day. Yesterday I had a blog post outlining some of the hacks that were demonstrated during the evening. Apart from the talks by the hackers themselves, there was also a thoughtful introduction to the evening from Rachel Coldicutt of the Royal Opera House, explaining why they had got involved in something like a hack day.

She suggested that one of the motivations was a desire to be more creative, and that, looking out, it was becoming clear that hackers and technologists were being more innovative and creative in many ways than some of our cultural institutions.

Another factor was simply the desire to mix with and meet developers. If you work with an in-house digital development team it is easy to forget that many people never have access to developers, and that website and application building can be seen very much as an outsourced IT function, rather than something closely integrated with the development of the organisation.

If it is a problem that people at the Opera House don’t get to mingle with developers, it is equally a loss that developers don’t get to mingle with opera people, and perhaps more importantly, with their data. My colleague Daithí’s recent talk about being a developer working on datajournalism projects stressed that most developers bring a generic set of tools to a project, and the domain expertise remains elsewhere. However, what the developer does do is bring fresh eyes and fresh methods of working and detecting patterns in datasets that a cultural institution may be taking for granted. As Rachel put it:

“Cultural institutions have loads of things hidden that are really cool, wouldn’t it be good to start exposing them?”

Rachel also outlined another reason for wanting to be involved in Culture Hack Day - the opportunity to collaborate with other cultural bodies and institutes. Often, she said, the arts worked in isolation or in silos, and a hack day was a good way to build bridges, meet people, and share data.

Sharing data turns out, yet again, to be the key thing here.

A lot of smaller museums, galleries or arts groups probably possess data or records that could be of use in hacks and digital culture propositions. If Culture Hack Day achieves anything beyond an impressive array of hacks on the day, it would be great if it could be that it starts providing tools and best practice advice to these kinds of organisations, so that they can unlock the potential of their data.

1 Comment

I was at a similar sort of talk a few weeks ago and actually came out quite depressed by it.

Two "geeks" said open data etc was good, because, well, its good, innit.

One geek I am sure didn't mean to say this, but ended up basically saying "open data means your website will beat Wikipedia in Google".

Three museums gave overviews of what they were doing - but it was obvious that there was a massive gulf between the two worlds.

One side has content, but doesn't understand the why/how of making it available, and the tech people just presume that "its the right thing to do" is enough of a reason to justify throwing a lot of money at a new website/api/database.

Depressing.

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