by Julian Hartley, Dim Sum Digital
Mental health is suffering due to the social and economic impact of covid-19. This insight charts how data driven public engagement can help museums protect mental wellness in the hardest hit areas.
With COVID-19 emerging from a public health crisis into an economic crisis, job insecurity and the fear of unemployment is impacting mental health. The ensuing economic turbulence will see work-based communities being fractured and with that upheaval, social structures intrinsic to mental wellness are shattered. With unemployment increasing, the already very long-tail of undiagnosed and untreated mental stress is lengthening. Despite the enormity of this crisis, museums can help, but only if they innovate and scale-up to meet that demand.
Participation in the arts and culture for the protection of mental health is long established and was recommended by The Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2009. Today one of the stronger drives informing cultural policy is the broad recognition that museum visiting, volunteering and community engagement is good for wellbeing. Through varied practices, museums have aided mindfulness, supported social identity and generally embraced notions of mental wellness. So it would seem museums are well-placed to work with people whose mental health is being impacted by economic uncertainty. But, as is often said, we are not in normal times. Data on the types of jobs at risk in our economy reveals that the age, ethnicity and social class of the hardest hit, are statistically those least interested in visiting, volunteering or befriending museums. In the newness of their vulnerability, and in the privacy of their mental state, they are both isolated and hidden from public view. Their invisibility and disinterest, coupled with the way social distancing rules are disabling museums’ public programs, is causing unwanted barriers.
Of course barriers can be overcome, and many museums already embrace an ethos of co-production to do just that. By working in partnership with a variety of community types, structures and organisations they orient their offer to reflect the community’s interests. But in this economic moment, unemployment is fracturing communities in ways that displace the individual and break social ties. At the same time, the long-tail of undiagnosed and untreated mental stress is being distributed across many disconnected individuals at a speed and scale that dwarfs most types of community. The social impact of the economic crisis causes the problem of how to scale co-productive practice at a greater level of granularity – the level of the individual. Going to the individual could mean literally – a pop-up space – or virtually via an app or game. However it is executed, the co-productive process starts from social insight into individual lives.
That insight can be found in data. In the same way we know the people impacted by economic uncertainty are statistically disinterested in visiting, volunteering, or befriending museums. This knowledge is revealed in data extracted and assembled from numerous sources: economic data on the sectors worst hit, the demography of that workforce, their geography, residential postcodes and, not to forget, museum attendance data, which is key to understanding and tracking audience diversity. Linking all this data together allows analysis to predict the postcode areas where anxiety from the fear of unemployment will be felt most keenly and further enables insight into individual attitudes, attributes and tastes via geodemographic profiling. The profiles are constructed through sourcing a variety of georeferenced data about people from loyalty cards, online ticket sales and other consumer registers which often contain postcode information. In other words, the trail of transactional data we leave when we’re out and about reveals a lot about who we are, and who we are not, in our tastes and purchasing choices. Through a framework of geographic data science, we can see, in real time, how individual behaviors, attitudes and contexts manifest spatially. That awareness of people’s lives is crucial to engaging disinterested publics, it informs and structures the museum’s communication; their language, approach and channel. Undoubtedly a more mechanised approach to public engagement will be controversial for some but it could also be a timely intervention.
The pandemic has brought the global debate on data ethics and data rights into the public domain. Issues relating to contact tracing, virus profiling, and disease management have prompted questions around data security, including who collects data, where and how it is stored, and with whom it is shared. Of the many influences COVID-19 could have over museum development, the argument for data science to have a new and more central role is situated in this new climate of data maturity. In this context, and that of the unfolding crisis in mental health, to use data science to achieve scalability in co-productive practice could be seen as prescient. We’ve been presented with an opportunity to tackle the emerging crisis with a new ethical standard to cultural access which is reflective of both a changed society and the role of data within it.
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Julian Hartley co-founded Dim Sum Digital, a company offering data expertise for widening cultural access to all socio-economic groups and diverse audiences. Julian has collaborated with a number of regional and national museums on data led projects andwas a Paul Mellon, V&A Research Institute Data Fellow. He holds a PhD in digital heritage from the University of Manchester.