What Does Data Have to Do with It?

Elina Sairanen
Apr 14, 2017 · 8 min read

As the spring 2017 intern in the department of Digital Media at MoMA, my goal has been to try to answer to the rather exciting question: “how should we integrate digital analytics into our work?”

During the past few months I have conducted a literature review and interviewed other museum professionals working in digital media at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Science Museum Group in the UK, and the Dallas Museum of Art to gain an understanding of the broader context in which the move towards digital analytics has taken place and how other museums are using digital analytics in their work.

Why Digital Analytics?

The first step was to contextualize and situate my assignment to a larger context. The increasing use of Google Analytics and other forms of digital analytics is linked to a wider organizational change of navigating towards data-driven decision-making. The vast digitization of our society has enabled the continuous production of enormous amounts of data, which obviously facilitates the process of becoming data-driven. In the past few years data has become a buzzword, especially in the business world, and data-savviness has been attributed to be one of the success factors that separates great businesses from good ones.

At the core of the data-driven decision-making approach lies the notion that any decision an organization executes ought to be justifiable with data. In other words, data should be an integral part of any decision-making process at any level. A defining characteristic of data-driven organizations is that they predominantly base their decisions in the rigorous analysis of data rather than are guided by the human mind and instinct solely. In fact, Erik Brynjolfsson (2011) and his team found that firms that adopt a data-driven decision-making approach have output and productivity that is 5–6% higher than what would be expected given their other investments and information technology usage. This finding has increased organizations’ interest towards data, which is often approached if not as a panacea to an organization’s problems, at least as a starting point for operational analysis and further betterment.

Furthermore, as an increasing number of an organization’s activities take place in the digital realm, organizations are faced with the challenge of developing effective ways to define, measure and evaluate the success of their online activities and performance. This might sound obvious to you, but it is important to understand how going digital on one hand enables data collection and measurement, but at the same time creates a new space for an organization’s activities, and the performance there ought to be measured too.

Digital Data in the Museum Context

Now that I had contextualized the project, the next step was to understand how an organization becomes data-driven. There is a whole discourse around this matter, but an essential requirement is to install and maintain an analytic culture. Certainly, this is not an overnight change and requires support from both senior management and staff at all levels as well as a shared understanding of the importance of data for decision-making.

During the past few years an increasing number of museums have turned their attention to the possibilities digital analytics and data offer them. At first glance, it could seem a little odd to think of museums engaging with such practices, but actually data and museums maintain a symbiotic relationship. Museums already collect a lot of data about the objects in their collections and as more museums release these data sets to the public, questions that were once difficult to answer are now easier to answer.

Furthermore, digital analytics also helps with many other museum activities. First, data allows museums to justify their organizational decisions to their funders and supporters. Obviously, in some countries this is mandated, but even when not, it is increasingly expected. Second, digital analytics can provide museums with additional ways to demonstrate their economic and social impact. Third, museums also operate in the digital realm, and digital data gives them the means to evaluate the success of their online activities. For example, out-of-the-box Google Analytics can help museums have a basic understanding of how their website is performing and get to know their online audience better.

How to encourage Digital Analytics in the Museum Realm

Now that the reasons why museums are interested in various forms of digital analytics have been briefly looked at, it is time to get into the more exciting stuff: the practicalities. Part of my job was to come up with a best practices plan for MoMA concerning the use of digital analytics in general and Google Analytics in particular, and now I am excited to share some bits of it with you. The following list contains some of the things I discovered during my research. It should not be thought of as a step-by-step approach; rather, the process is multifaceted and most of the actions ought to be taken simultaneously.

Enlist your colleagues to the data cause

An essential requirement for an organization to become at least partially data-driven is to create an organizational culture in which data is saluted and celebrated rather than disregarded.

Establish profound cross-departmental communication concerning the use of data in your decision-making. Museum professionals who are further along their data journeys underline that the first step is to install an analytics culture and adopt various analytics practices. On an organizational level, this transformation often begins with specific resources dedicated to the analytics, for example a data analyst is hired. Hopefully, the senior management in your museum is interested in and supportive of data-driven decision-making. However, do not be discouraged if your museum’s senior management is not on board immediately. A small group of engaged colleagues is a great start. Once you’ve started incorporating data into your decisions, your results can be used to enlist senior management’s support. The overall transformation into a data-driven organization eventually requires support from the management because it is depends on creating and maintaining an analytic culture that celebrates data. Show your colleagues how well data can guide you with your decisions and a change is likely to take place.

Be strategic: do the most important thing, not everything.

Elena Villaespesa and Tijana Tasich underline in their paper Making Sense of Numbers: A Journey of Spreading the Analytics Culture at Tate (2012) that museums cannot stumble blindly into the world of analytics, but they must approach digital analytics and metrics strategically and formulate a data strategy to serve their particular needs. For any organizational and cultural shift to happen, there ought to be a plan to guide you through the transformation. A strategic plan enables you to communicate the role and goals of analytics, key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to evaluate the success of digital presence and the plan to get there. I recommend checking out the Digital Strategy of the Science Museum Group and John Stack’s previous work for Tate here and here.

As you are formulating your strategic plan, it is crucial to understand that a strategic approach to analytics starts not with collecting data, but rather you first need to decide which stories you want to tell — or what your goals for your data analysis are— before you can tell them. It is also important to recognize that not all the stories are useful. Don’t try to do everything.

In order to not do everything, you need to have a cross-departmental dialogue about the specific metrics and goals that would be useful to your museum and related to your mission statement. You might want to consider how to measure reach, engagement, loyalty and impact through your choice of digital analytics. The goals of digital analytics can be, for example, defined in your museum’s digital strategy. These goals, then, ought to translate into specific everyday measurements and metrics. This, most likely, will present an interesting challenge: how to translate the KPIs into more everyday analytics that are measurable on a daily basis.

Increase data literacy and create dashboards

This action is an integral component of a data-driven organizational culture. There are two important points to this action: spark an interest towards data within your museum and make sure people share the same understanding of the terminology and significance of the specific metrics. In our interview, John Stack of the Science Museum Group underlined that when it comes to the Google Analytics terminology, there ought to be a shared understanding of the terms, because otherwise you really cannot have meaningful conversations about the data.

In the process of sparking an interest towards data and increasing the overall level of data literacy, dashboards come in handy as Elena Villaespesa has noted here and here. Internal dashboards are a useful means to communicate your museum’s strategy, align people working towards strategic objectives and report results within an organization. Dashboards are also effective in evaluating how your various digital activities are performing.

Concerning the use of Google Analytics in particular, consider creating specific dashboards inside the program. I created a number of new dashboards that are focused on the particular sections of MoMA.org. It is quite fascinating to learn who are the most visited artists, which objects gain most attention, and which exhibitions pages are most popular.

You might want to consider establishing an external dashboards too. There are a number of museums which currently make available dashboards, including the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), The Cleveland Museum of Art and UCL Museums. The pioneer in the field was the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), who launched its dashboard in late 2007, but it has since been taken offline. Rob Stein, the former Deputy Director of Research, Technology, and Engagement at IMA and the current Deputy Director of the DMA, argued that an external dashboard was helpful in the process of increasing transparency concerning the museum’s various operations and performances. Indeed, as your museum is becoming more data-detailed, you might want to consider establishing an external dashboard as well and become more transparent about your museum’s various activities. An external dashboard also enables you to foster a culture of metrics and data.

Without analysis, it’s all worthless

Creating dashboards is all good and fine, but it is a waste of time if you don’t actually use your dashboards. It is absolutely crucial to properly analyze and interpret your data. During my interviews with John Stack of the Science Museum Group and Shyam Oberoi of Dallas Museum of Art it became evident that proper analysis is hugely important in order to maximize the full potential data brings to a museum. Think of it this way: digital analytics will enable you to have all this data, but analysis and interpretation will help you understand why. And once you understand why, you’ll be able to do something about it.

Concluding thoughts

This project could be thought of as a prelude for MoMA concerning the use of digital analytics in general and Google Analytics in particular. The digital analytics realm contains great potential for the museum sector but will definitely also require special organizational efforts. There is a great variety of museums ranging on a continuum from iconoclastic art institutions to organizations committed to the presentation of one idea or theme, but all of them are eager to further improve their operations whether in the digital or physical domains. Hopefully in the future an increasing number of museums welcome the possibilities of data and continue to embark on this rather fascinating data journey. When data is used wisely and thoughtfully, it can help museums to thrive during these challenging, changing times.

Digital @ MoMA

Musings from the digital media department at The Museum of Modern Art

Thanks to Jackie Thomas

Elina Sairanen

Written by

Museums x Digital Media

Digital @ MoMA

Musings from the digital media department at The Museum of Modern Art

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