Chatbot As Assistant Grant Writer

When I first saw this piece on Arts Professional about data driven decision making, I thought maybe the author, Patrick Towell, was cribbing Drew McManus and Ceci Dadisman’s recent conference session on the same topic.

He even referenced the gut trusting HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion/in Office).

I might have only had myself to blame having brought attention to it with my inspiring post on the subject.

But Towell quickly moves away from that subject to address a pretty significant barrier to using data to drive decisions–people’s comfort levels accessing, interpreting and using the data.

Towell cites respondents to a survey of people working in cultural organizations in the UK:

Some of those respondents work in an organisational culture that doesn’t embrace the use of data: “Data gets bad PR. The greatest barrier to usage is lack of fluency and comfort with data as a medium to tell stories.” For others it was systems being difficult to access and join up: “We can’t effectively understand or engage with our audience without tools to collate, analyse and use our audience data.”

Despite this discomfort, many respondents were eager to use data to support their activities:

Interestingly, many did consider its use in artistic and cultural programming: “Data could be used to inform our programming schedule, driving more revenue.” Audience development was an area where people saw a clear benefit: “Our visitor and sales forecasting is based in fairyland – better datasets and data analysis could be more realistic.” People also thought they could better justify the use of public money through more defensible evidence.

What Towell says his company has done is started to prototype a chatbot that will “sit over your data” as a “kind of Alexa for cultural managers” and help a wider range of people in an organization feel comfortable accessing it. The example they use in the screenshot of the prototype queries the chatbot about how many new members visited shows in December.

If they can get this to work, it would be awesome. If you were able to feed budget numbers into it so just about anyone could ask about revenue and expenses for different combinations of projects, it would make completing grant reports so much easier. Especially if it potentially spread to onus of completing reports around the organization.

The biggest hurdle I see is that funding organizations have such diverse definitions and conditions associated with their reporting, programming a bot AI to keep it all straight might be cost prohibitive.

Still, it is a pretty intriguing idea. Some time in the last couple weeks I saw someone mention they were visiting the websites of arts and culture organizations to see how many used chatbots to facilitate the sale of tickets. (Things like, “when are Thursday performances of Hamlet in June and July?”). The value of chatbots for public facing interactions is rather obvious, but I suspect few people have considered their utility for internal information sharing.

When HiPPOs Attack

Being the voracious consumer of arts administration theory and philosophy, I jumped on the slide deck Drew McManus and Ceci Dadisman put together for their session at the Association of Arts Administration Educators conference.

The topic they covered was “Effective Data Driven Decision Making,” which may sound uninteresting until you realize that the main thrust of their session was providing guidance for dealing with a major barrier to progress in an organization, the HiPPOs.

In his post on Adaptistration reflecting on his conference experience, Drew expresses some surprise that conference attendees hadn’t heard of HiPPO decision making before. I suspect people are familiar with the practice, but just don’t know that particular term.

HiPPO stands for Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

I am pretty sure everyone has had the experience where they put a lot of effort into developing a plan/proposal, supporting it with research, surveys, etc., perhaps going through multiple layers of people to get their buy-in and approval only to have the final decision maker summarily nix it.

Usually the rejection is based on a personal opinion or gut feeling about what should be done, despite the fact that the people they pay to do research, analyze data, and be subject matter experts say otherwise.

This slide from Drew and Ceci’s presentation summarize it pretty well.

Accompanying this and other slides in the presentation are scads of notes Drew and Ceci graciously supply. Including the following tips about HiPPO behavior:

How to tell if you’re a HiPPO (or work for one). HiPPOs ask:

  • How much traffic is coming to our website?
  • What are our conversion rates?
  • What are the top exit pages on our website?
  • How many average monthly leads do we generate?
  • What is the average site visitor time on site?
  • What are our click-through rates on the homepage slider?

In short, if your data requests sound like grant applications, you have yet to establish a positive data culture.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking about effective data driven decision making in terms of having to collect even more information for reports no one is going to read. Think about this in terms of creating a work environment in which data analysis and expertise is honored across the whole organization (Drew & Ceci also address siloed decision making) and acted upon rather than disregarded on one person’s word.

Basically, the goal is to reduce how frequently you utter the phrase, “So what did I do all that work for…” at work

Go check out the slide presentation and accompanying notes.

Cross Cultural Appreciation Is A Start

Pacific Standard recently pointed to a study conducted in Portugal that indicated some positive outcomes using the music and culture of immigrant groups to help reduce prejudicial attitudes.

It reports schoolchildren around age 11 who learned about the music and culture of a faraway land expressed warmer feelings toward immigrants from that country than those who did not. What’s more, those positive emotions were still evident three months after this exposure to the foreign culture.

“Music can inspire people to travel to other emotional worlds,” writes a research team led by psychologist Felix Neto of the University of Porto. Their work suggests songs can serve as an emotional bridge between cultures, revealing feelings that are common to both.

Their study, published in the journal Psychology of Music, featured 229 Portuguese sixth graders, all living in greater Lisbon. Two-thirds came from blue-collar families.

The students in the experimental group participated in twenty 90 minute sessions across six months. At the end of that period, their prejudices were reduced compared to the control group and that attitude persisted when the experiment group was surveyed three months later.

Learning of this study lead me to recall something mentioned in a keynote address delivered by Jamie Bennett where he cited an anthropologist working with drumming circles at the Field Museum

As I wrote in that post,

He goes on to say that this was based on observations of immigrants and first generation Americans living in Chicago who participated in drumming circles. As each performed drumming particular to their own cultural background, the group bonded. Bennett says this observation is important because it potentially illustrates that arts and culture is a pathway for integrating society that doesn’t involve assimilation–“I don’t have to become more like you to become more closely bonded.”

Thinking about both of these situations started me wondering if this effect is underappreciated and ineffectively employed to constructive ends. While I am obviously against positioning music and other cultural expressions as prescriptions to cure racism, the impact of cross-cultural exposure is well recognized.

Of course, what has been somewhat controversial in the U.S., at least, is that this impact has often manifested as borrowing/”discovery”/appropriation by people outside of the cultural group who go on to popularize it. Or people have borrowed the appealing elements of cultural expression while avoiding the daily challenges faced by members of the source culture.

The challenge therefore is 1) Opening people to experiencing expressions of cultures that are not their own. 2) Ensuring that the peoples of other cultures are able to retain ownership and identification with their expressions as people come to appreciate it.

Even after that, there is still much work that needs to be done. A reduction in prejudicial attitudes doesn’t equal the elimination of prejudice. A person is more than just the external expressions of their culture. There can be a gap to bridge between appreciating someone for their skillful exhibition of their culture and appreciating them as a whole person.

Pop Up Box Office Are As Much About Listening As Selling

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com linking to an Arts Professional article all performing arts professionals should read.

Hull Truck Theatre in Hull, England started regular pop-up box office hours in local retail chain locations to help address barriers to participation people had.

(By the way, the barriers were exactly those identified in the US studies like Culture Track – “time, cost, lack of awareness of what’s on, childcare and a sense of it being ‘not for me’”)

Magda Moses, who is the Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre Company started out with a trial visit to one of the stores and had conversations about their past, present and future experiences with theatre, following the theme of an upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Members of our box office team then joined us, enabling customers to buy tickets from an ipad.

We now run these pop-up box office and community engagement sessions in four Heron Foods stores once a month, and having other staff in attendance has helped the project become more embedded across the theatre.

One of the things we’ve learnt is to visit on regular days and times so that we can promote our visits in advance and people expect us and get to know our staff.

Since some of the responses they have received have dealt with being intimidated by the theatre building, an opportunity to interact with box office staff provides a point of contact that likely would have never occurred had they not gone out in the community.

In addition to the oft mentioned concerns about how to dress and act at a performance, a number of people identified being concerned that the experience would not live up to the expense of tickets. When the theatre produced a show about local woman advocating for fishing industry reform in the 1960s, Hull Truck Theatre offered “pay what you can” tickets exclusively through pop up box offices at Heron Foods.

Moses writes, “…we received positive feedback that people were thrilled to be able to afford to see a play that was directly relevant to their community.”

It sounds like the feedback they got from these efforts might be better than any paper survey and they have gained some insight into their audience segments. Yes, it is probably more expensive and labor intensive than more conventional approaches, but I am sure there are some intangible benefits that can’t be easily quantified in an ROI analysis.

Every time we visit Heron Food stores we ask about what sorts of events they like to come to, which informs out future programming.

We’ve identified differences in audiences across the city. Shoppers on Orchard Park are likely to bring the whole family, so they want affordable shows that everyone will enjoy. Hessle Road shoppers are likely to be older and are interested in local history and Hull stories. This information helps us make sure our marketing is relevant to each area.

Our pop-up box office sessions are about much more than selling tickets. They’re also about building relationships, trust and familiarity in order to spark the idea that someone can go to the theatre.

The sessions are an important part of the Community Dialogues project and the theatre’s wider commitment to welcome new audiences. So once we get to know someone, we can direct them towards tours, coffee mornings, family events, access performances or workshops, depending on their interests.

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