Notes from a small big data conference: Where big data gives context to content, modern data science is a prime case of solid maths driving creative vision. And it’s in the world of creative content we find that breed of data scientist that can pull it off.
We live in world so packed with visible data the squiggly walls from The Matrix in hindsight feel understated. Yet there is still an endemic fear amongst corporations and institutions of revealing too much, says data scientist Alison Whitaker. And when it comes to designing creative new ways to engage one’s audience, while it might still be a risk to go off one’s intuition as a content creator, it’s a shedload more mitigated when you’ve got the insight.
It’s about having someone on board with the knowledge and ability to form a data-led strategy, and communicate it
What does data have to do with me?
I was listening to Alison speak as part of a series of talks at the British Museum in London last week, entitled ‘What does data have to do with me?’ Speakers from the BBC, Google, The Guardian, News UK, Adobe, and notably from several corners of the UK arts and culture industries including creative innovation charity Nesta and the Arts Council, came to discuss the role of big data in shaping modern marketing strategies, particularly with an eye on the cultural sector.
There is still an endemic fear amongst corporations and institutions of revealing too much data
I took an initial foray into the world of big data in my last blog, where good science provides a backbone to creative campaigns. It was interesting to hear this same perspective emerge from the cultural world here, where, as well as channelling progressive creativity in marketing, big data is being used on a much more fundamental level.
“When punters came in to the British Museum, they would kind of go into a black hole; we didn’t know where they went or what they did there,” said Chris Michaels, head of digital at the British Museum.
Chris explained how the big data revolution is now helping this world-renowned institution actually fulfil its founding mission – to educate the world about its own history. Nothing has that level of capability quite like the modern digital world and the rivers of data that run through it.
It’s not something I imagined myself ever saying, but I have a passion for data.
A unicorn’s passion for data
What’s interesting is that the maths is important, holistically, shall we say. Or to put it another way, the data isn’t boring. It’s fascinating.
Now, I am a scientist at heart – I did a science degree – but I’m a creative in my head and as such I always hated the maths part of my chosen path of learning. I loved the theory but I never really appreciated why I had to do all these bloody sums.
However, I graduated well over a decade ago and out from under a lingering mist of £1 tequila shots in the student union every Monday. Much as I loved doing my degree, my powers of analysis at the time admittedly weren’t brilliant. Or, more to the point, useful.
But in what I do nowadays I’ve had an epiphany of sorts. Finally I can use data intelligently; my science side drives my creative side and I love it. It’s not something I imagined myself ever saying, but I have a passion for data.
And do you know what this means? It means, according to Alison et al, I’m a data scientist; it means I’m a unicorn. And as a diligent content creator, you are too. Massive whoop ‘n’ yay.
I should probably explain. The term ‘unicorn’ popped up a few times over the course of the day, first mentioned by Juan Mateos-Garcia, a Research Fellow in Economics in the Creative Economy team for Nesta Policy and Research. Juan pointed out that the big data landscape is rocky and intimidating for a lot of company owners and marketers surveying its terrain, and data scientists with a creative flair are those rare individuals – the so-called ‘unicorns’ – that can negotiate it.
New culture, new people
Modern marketing teams, he explained, will need restructuring. They need new types of people and they will need to seek out these unicorns amongst academics, content strategists, and digital marketing agencies.
Data scientists, said Juan, see things that were invisible before: the trends, the patterns, the intel. We hear opportunities to shout out from within the ubiquitous digital noise. We combine the skillsets of coders and statisticians that can collect, clean, measure and map big data, with creative communicators, problem-solvers and storytellers.
We’re storytellers with purpose; we tell stories that focus on need (which, again, is quite fundamental – it’s sort of the point of telling a story). Data scientists use data to tell stories by providing those stories real life context. Data is creative and creative needs data.
“Being data-centric nowadays isn’t about being ‘digital’,” said Juan. “It’s about you – about your stuff – what’s unique about you and what are the most important things to your customers? It’s about understanding your needs, and your audience’s.”
Big data and capable data scientists also help bring cultural agreement behind your digital decision-making.
In other words, it’s about having someone on board with the knowledge and ability to form a data-led strategy, and communicate it to stakeholders. A transparent, open data platform gives your key stakeholders that perhaps are not in digital the context behind your content plans – it basically helps everybody understand the why.
Data is not this tyrannical figure that must be followed absolutely; creative instinct is still important
The overriding message of the day was that a new data culture is emerging; as a newly discovered unicorn I for one am excited. Putting good science behind creative vision paints a captivating picture. One speaker remarked that data is not this tyrannical figure that must be followed absolutely; creative instinct is still important, it’s just that you now have a measured estimation of how it’ll perform. Plus you’re not wasting time on projects that don’t pay their dues.
It’s all there; it’s in the data, so why don’t we see how deep this rabbit hole goes?