Big Data

The AHRC recognises the opportunities for transformative research in the arts and humanities offered by the rapid developments in so called ‘big data’. These developments include increased capacity to develop, exploit and re-use very large and complex datasets and novel methods to link together large and varied forms of data in increasingly sophisticated ways. We also recognise the distinctive and creative contributions that the arts and humanities can make to the development of approaches to the use of such ‘big data’. Arts and humanities research is fundamental to, for example, developing new types of visualisation and representation, exploring different contexts in which ‘big data’ might be used, or inspiring creative new ways to engage with data users.

For researchers to meaningfully engage with information on such a large scale, it is necessary to develop new, or draw on innovative existing, tools and methods. With such tools, ‘big data’ can be investigated for a purpose other than the purpose it was collected for. Researchers can ask it different kinds of questions, use different methodologies and produce new insights. ‘Big data’ approaches can also create new cross-disciplinary and international collaborative research opportunities and stimulate novel boundary crossing research e.g. across different forms of physical and virtual materials, spanning wide geographical and temporal scales and combining data from different sources (research, wider publics, heritage sector, creative economy etc.). 

Some methodologies commonly used when dealing with ‘big data’ pose major methodological challenges for the nature and purpose of arts and humanities research which are ripe for further investigation. There are challenges which arise from working with any kind of data, such as ethics, privacy and trust, as well as questions surrounding intellectual property and copyright. Arts and humanities researchers are uniquely placed to respond to these issues.

Understanding and contextualising ‘big data’ is also non-trivial and issues of complexity can be as challenging as those of scale.  In this regard there are close connections to AHRC’s Digital Transformations Theme which is exploring such issues in the broader context of developments in digital technologies and approaches.

The AHRC has an important leadership role in supporting the development of  new or enhanced skills and competencies that are needed in this field. Alongside traditional disciplinary expertise, the AHRC will seek to develop the potential of innovative technologies and data analysis to fully exploit the potential of ‘big data’ across the full range of arts and humanities disciplines.

In addition to the Digital Transformations Theme, ‘big data’ potentially connects to a number of AHRC’s wider priority areas as outlined in its strategy (PDF, 3.6MB) for 2013-2018 including the creative and cultural economy, heritage, and its leadership of the cross-Council Connected Communities Programme. As a part of this we are keen to explore the potential to deepen and expand the way in which the people, skills and research we support in relation to ‘big data’ can bring cultural, intellectual and economic benefits to the UK and the wider. Effective use of big data has the potential to drive a step-change in the way the creative and cultural economy engages with data which could deliver significant direct benefits for the sector as well as supporting advances in arts and humanities research. 

You can also download the Big Data leaflet (PDF, 1.2MB)

Awards that we have made to date in the area of big data

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

Four projects to examine the potential of big data - high volume, high velocity information - in the arts and culture sector have been selected for funding through the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

The projects were developed in response to an open call by Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta for big data proposals and will explore how the industry can utilise data to grow reach and develop new business strategies.

The four big data projects to receive funding are:

ArtsAPI (£292,343) – A web-based service will aggregate, analyse and present data so that arts organisations can show the value and impact they generate through their networks, helping them to create new and refined business models and propositions.

Arts Data Impact (£299,985) – The ADI project will embed the first ever Data Scientist-In-Residence for the Arts at the Barbican, English National Opera (ENO) and National Theatre to interrogate their ever-growing data resources. In addition, a national data warehouse will be created to enable more comprehensive collection and sharing of data across the arts and cultural sector. ADI is delivered by The Audience Agency.

Culture Counts (£300,000) – Building on the insights from a recently completed pilot, this project will test a new set of metrics and an online platform to help arts and culture organisations across Manchester better understand the quality and impact of their work. Audiences, peers and programmers will be invited to give real-time feedback on the event they’ve just experienced.

The Unusual Suspects (£184,325) - Nine arts and cultural organisations in Newcastle and Gateshead will pool, profile and segment their audience data. The insights from this will enable them to develop a series of audience offers to test the most effective ways to re-engage infrequent attenders, encourage audience cross-over and deepen audience engagement. 

Digital Transformations in Community Research Co-production in the Arts and Humanities

We made 11 awards under this call. The AHRC tasked projects funded under this call to explore new research opportunities at the interface and intersections between the Connected Communities Programme, the Digital Transformations theme, the Cross-Council Digital Economy Programme, and AHRC activities relating to the Creative Economy. The call asked for projects to use, re-use, link, remix, visualize, enhance, re-purpose, map and/or co-create open data, to ultimately co-produce a research based asset of enduring value for communities and future research.  

Digital Transformations in Community Research Co-Production in the Arts and Humanities (PDF, 82KB)

Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities: Big Data Research 

We funded 21 awards through the Big Data Research call, 10 of which were smaller projects of up to £100k in value, and 11 were larger projects of up to £600k. The call aimed to address some of the challenges that arise from working with big data, as well as asking interesting questions of data, and producing innovative and creative assets for future Arts and Humanities research.

Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities: Big Data Research (PDF, 116KB)

The call document itself can be found here.