Towards a Cultural industry empowered by big data
Authors: Stephen Wong, LegCo Member, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Public Policy Institute, Helen So, Lead of Arts & Culture, and Yolanda Lam, Assistant Researcher, Our Hong Kong Foundation
Like oil, data is the world’s most valuable resource, permeating every facet of our lives. Earlier, the Mainland issued the "14th Five-Year Plan for the Development of the Big Data Industry" that portended to the imminence of building a digital economy that capitalises on data, and suggested that modern economy is inseparable from the development and application of big data.
The use of big data is increasingly more prevalent across the board these days, but for the cultural and creative industries, it is still catching on. The general observation is that people seem to have little understanding of how big data can be applied effectively to the cultural sector to generate useful outcomes; indeed, art and culture can hardly be appraised through quantitative metrics only. Cultural creativity laden with humanistic values seems to be at odds with data that emphasises precision and efficiency. That said, many emerging cultural and creative enterprises are seen to be embracing new emerging technologies to analyse data, in order to enhance their creativity and operational effectiveness. So can data really inform cultural decisions?
To begin, on a national level, we notice that the construction of a national cultural big data system has been stipulated on cultural policy agendas for the new era. In essence it aims to connect the “supply, production, cloud and demand ends" of cultural content through big data. In so doing, it aims to encompass every aspect of the cultural ecosystem through data. These present true manifestations of integrating culture and technology, digital culture, and would set solid technical foundations for developing the cultural industry going forward.
Learning from the thinking behind mainland policies
In 2019, the Ministry of Science and Technology and five other ministries issued the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting Deep Integration of Culture with Science and Technology”, proposing to “strengthen the construction of the cultural big data system”. The "Notice on the Construction of the National Cultural Big Data System" issued in the following year lists in more detail the eight specific tasks of the construction of the cultural big data system, basically dividing cultural big data into two categories: the first type is supply data, i.e., the recording and organisation of cultural assets and materials, such as film details, historical records and local cultural heritage, etc.; the second type is demand data, i.e., data related to cultural consumers, such as museum attendance, website browsing rates, box office, etc.
Subsequently, the "National Cultural Big Data Standard System Construction" released in January last year explains the technical structure of the big data system, and offered implications for the ecosystem concerning the cultural big data industry. The paper also defines certain core terms, such as setting the standards for each of the four "ends" and the basic applications and regulations of the big data system. These, in turn, aim to forge alignment between government, cultural organisations, research & technology enterprises, as well as cultural service providers on reaching a commonly agreeable data sharing mechanism.
The national cultural big data system, however, is huge and holistic involving complex data, and may not be fully applicable to Hong Kong. Nevertheless, understanding the thinking behind mainland policies helps shed light on the significance of big data to the cultural industries. In particular, the following questions are worth exploring: first, how to connect all parties in the cultural ecosystem through data; second, how to overcome the fragmentation of cultural data; and last but most important, how to analyse and apply the collected data to benefit public policymaking as well as private sector. These include enhancing the government's decision-making and evaluation capabilities, distilling operational efficiencies of cultural institutions, strengthening transparencies of public cultural information, sharpening understanding of market trends and audience demands, as well as reinforcing the compilation capabilities of Hong Kong's new and traditional cultural assets, for instance.
Aside from developments in the Mainland, many economies around the world are shown to have conducted in-depth research and policy planning on cultural big data as well in this time.
As we turn to Hong Kong, we realise that big data analysis has actually been one of the highlights in the "Hong Kong Smart City Blueprint" released by the HKSAR Government since 2017. Insofar we have only been able to see applications made in the fields of medical services and transportation, with no concrete implementation plan for making use of data from the cultural and creative industries. At the same time, the Government has also launched the “DATA.GOV.HK” to disseminate various types of Public Sector Information provided by government departments and public and private organisations for public use. In that platform, we notice that information related to culture and the arts is provided by the Home Affairs Bureau, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and the Census and Statistics Department, which issue the “Annual Open Data Plans” every year to set out what data will be released to the public.
Data-driven decision-making is essential
Nevertheless, we’re still at a very rudimentary stage of this discourse. For instance we’re only collecting attendance figures of cultural programmes, and the lists of recipients under different funding schemes etc, and offer no deeper analyses of how these datasets inform industry developments, ie. how attendance figures reflected audience preferences or how online browsing rate reflected the success of a project etc. It must be noted that the main purpose of analysis is to synthesise online and offline data so that cultural institutions can extract useful data to carry out impact assessment, grasp the operating conditions and identify potential problems. But observably, the current system is not able to provide much insight for players within the cultural and creative sectors at the moment, and falls short of facilitating data-driven decision-making.
While the Government actively develops and applies big data in other areas of society, the cultural and creative industries should not be sidelined. It should harness big data to help the industries flourish and drive innovation. To build a robust cultural big data ecosystem, we should first consider carefully what its purpose is, what data it collects, which cultural institutions it empowers, and what existing problems it can solve. Then at a later stage when key targets are refined and more developed, we can also think about encompassing other emerging cultural datasets such as copyright transaction entries within the big data system.
Big data helps gain insights into audience needs, optimise resource allocation, enrich cultural content and enhance cultural dissemination. By making better use of big data, Hong Kong puts itself in a better position of developing into an international hub of cultural exchanges between China, and the rest of the world.