What is a Culture Hack?


Guest blog by Ashley Mann

What the blooming heck is a Culture Hack? It sounds like some kind of very niche, probably illegal, computer-related nonsense. Well, hopefully I can convince you that it isn’t. It is in fact interesting, exciting and useful. Imagine if there was an app that told you exactly how to get to a gallery, when that gallery would be busiest/quietest and presented you with new ways to interact with and explore the exhibits or a website that allows you to search all the film listings for every cinema in the country or a way to explore the collections of a museum, not just the stuff currently on display but everything. These are all examples of things that have been made possible thanks to Culture Hack events.

First, a bit of background. There are exceptions to every sweeping generalisation and I’m sure this is no different but in my experience cultural and arts organisations are pretty bad at ‘doing digital’ (there are numerous reasons for this, I go into what I think some of them are here). They don’t understand the technology, they don’t understand technologists and they don’t have the time, money or inclination to think about how they might use technology in new and interesting ways. Of course there are organisations/museums/galleries doing amazing things, but I’m talking about my experience of the vast bulk of the arts sector.

Whilst there is a burgeoning movement in government and the wider public sector towards Open Data (Manchester is a good example), arts organisations are, on the whole, hugely behind the curve. Why spend the time developing an API when you’ve got to sell 3000 tickets for the coming week, why make data available when no-one else in the sector is doing it? Money and time are tight and you don’t have enough of either to waste on ‘vanity projects’.

The frustrating thing is some of the data that cultural organisations are sitting on is so amazing and could be turned into hugely useful, fun, exciting and interesting ‘stuff’ if it was accessible to developers, sadly, all too often this isn’t the case.

This is, hopefully, where events like Culture Hack can help. These events take the already well-established hack day format (e.g. get a load of clever computer types in a room for 24 hours, give them some data and beer and see what they make) add cultural data and demonstrate what can be done with it. There have already been successful events in London and Edinburgh (the Edinburgh Book Festival’s mobile site was a direct result of Culture Hack Scotland) and I thought we should have one in the north of England too.

We will be playing host to data from; Opera North, Northern Ballet, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Manchester Museums, National Media Museum, Leeds Libraries, Museums Sheffield, National Railway Museum, Leeds Museums, Sheffield Theatres and Breeze Festival. This list is expanding by the day but I think it’s safe to say there will be some interesting and diverse data being provided.

But why should you care about any of this?

Well if you’re interested in culture, the arts or technology (and I’ve assume that, as you’re reading this then perhaps you are) then it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of the event; what will the developers come up with? Who knows, that’s the exciting thing.

If you work for an arts/cultural organisation then why not talk to me about getting involved, providing some data or simply come along and have some conversations about mad ideas with people that could help make them a reality.

If you’re a developer then book on, there will be some exclusive data that has never seen the light of day before and you’ll get the chance to talk to some exciting, creative people and organisations and blow them away with your ideas. Plus it’s being organised by Dom who is the force behind the immensely enjoyable, well-organised and fun Leeds Hack.

So, what do we think, are things like Culture Hack a good thing? How could better, more meaningful, more sustainable connections be forged between the arts/cultural sector and the digital community in the north?

Culture Hack North takes place as part of Leeds Digital Festival on 12-13th November at Old Broadcasting House