How can arts and culture listings be better?

How can arts and culture listings be better?

By Rob Ashelford
Ben Proctor


Arts and culture listings are broken. Can open data help to make them better asks Rob Ashelford, Head of Y Lab  and Ben Proctor, The Satori Lab.

When we started exploring the world of arts and cultural listings data, part of the team were of the view that if we just put all the data in one place, made it open and shouted about it (with some support and possibly funding), we’d be in a good position to open up the world of listings publishing to a host of new entrants and allow people to start innovating. Ultimately, they thought, this would make the discovery of arts events easier for audiences.

This view wasn’t entirely wrong, but it’s turned out to be a little more complicated than that.

Events data flowing to the audience

This diagram shows some of the possible ways that information about an arts production reaches an audience member

Over the course of about six months, we set about trying to better understand how we could make cultural listings data more useful.

We did this by undertaking a discovery project to better understand the problem space around arts and culture listings - testing our assumptions and attempting to answer the questions that emerged as a result of our research. We were graciously and generously supported in this by a huge number of people, both in the arts and outside it and to them we say a massive thank you.

Summary of Findings

We discovered lots of things, including:

  • There is no commonly or widely used data standard for publishing arts and culture listings.
  • There are costs and inefficiencies along the data pipeline from the artist to the audience.
  • Discovering relevant events is sufficient enough of a problem that a number of commercial services have been developed to help audiences discover events.
  • Basic concepts in data infrastructure are not well understood in the arts and cultural sector.
  • Open Data does not form a normal part of the discourse in this sector. In fact, most of the data publishers we spoke to as part of this discovery want to retain control over who can access and share their events listings data. Some organisations believe that they are offering Open Data but, in fact, provide Shared Data.
  • There is evidence that where data is published against clear standards and via APIs that this will enable new and innovative services.

There is evidence that where data is published against clear standards and via APIs that this will enable new and innovative services.

Our overwhelming conclusion from this is that, while something needs to happen to make the process of creating, distributing and accessing arts listings simpler, quicker and more effective, putting that data in a central database isn’t the answer.

Instead we need to encourage a healthy data ecosystem to develop where different organisations can publish and consume data, based on common standards and open licences. Instead of creating more silos (which will likely only survive as long as a funding stream does), we need to create business models that encourage investment in data infrastructure and open data.


As a result of our discovery work we make the following recommendations:

  1. The arts and cultural sector as a whole should agree on a common standard for what a listing is, maintain it and use it.
  2. Arts organisations can make accessing their data easier by specifying APIs in any new website build and commit to making the listings published there available under an open licence.
  3. Policymakers should invest in improving data and digital literacy and the data infrastructure across the sector.

Rob Ashelford, Y Lab

Ben Proctor, Satori Lab

Rob and Ben would be delighted to talk to people from across the sector about their work and how we can work together to make these recommendations a reality.

Email Rob

Email Ben 

First published by Nesta, 26 September, 2019

Resource type: Articles | Published: 2019