The Accuracy of Quantifying Culture: The Cultural Data Project

By definition; culture is hard to define, as it can be a product of a multitude of different factors. Culture can both be a product of your environment, and a product of your own creation. Culture can come from your heritage or your geographic region. Culture can  be a result of your upbringing or your current surroundings, it can come from what you have learned experientially or tangentially.

How, then, can culture be classified? How can we understand culture from a scientific level, where we can assign variables, collect data, and draw conclusions? The Cultural Data Project is doing just that – they are creating tools to help cultural organizations realize trends and outcomes through collecting and analyzing data of participating organizations. This is said to help promote investment in cultural organizations and helps these same organizations understand what works versus what does not.

At first glance, i was skeptical; I never thought of culture as something that could be categorized or evaluated at any scientific level. The website, however, discusses the process. The CDP offers a standardized online form that allows organizations to enter data about their finances, programming and day-to-day operational data; once this data is analyzed, CDP is able to generate reports on a variety of subjects.  These reports can “help increase management capacity, identify strengths and challenges and inform decision-making… [and] reports to be included as part of the application processes to participating grantmakers.”

Reading about the CDP threw me back to our discussion about the digitization of popular culture, and by extension, culture. How are different aspects of cultural organizations translated from continuous data to discrete data, where we can draw conclusions from the newly formed separation in data points? Further, how do we know that these measurements are reliable? The process of digitization requires sampling and quantification. Samples are to be taken

at regular intervals, where all variables are either acknowledged or accounted for. CDP has presented us with a tool to analyze the data collected but where it falls short is in the required first step. This is the main flaw I see (so far) in the CDP. The sampling is essentially left to the organization – which can leave variables undiscovered and can skew data results. The CDP has an 11-point data profile where they can ‘get to know’ the organizations and make assumptions from noticed trends. However, with the variety of organizations that use the CDP, I question the across-the-board accuracy of these reports.

I commend the CDP on their efforts – I think there is a lack of policy, information, and general support for the cultural arts industry. However, I disagree with the emphasis that they seem to be putting on the topic of investment – the tools seem to cater to organizations looking to generate reports for financial support.

Finally, I was left questioning how these reports and tools can be further expanded in order to generate use for the public. Could this implement a new ranking system for cultural organizations? and further, does the productivity, endowment and operational expenses of a cultural organization matter to the public? Think about it – what would you do with this knowledge? I imagine a reality where Cultural organizations strive to reach a social standard for productivity and charitable contributions.

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