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The story of Culture Counts (and our software)

Chris McCormick

Chris McCormick, 30 March 2017

Four years ago I met a very excited economist with a weird but compelling idea. He pitched it to me simply:

‘Some industries, like sports, are good at getting funding. I have come up with a way to help the arts show their value by measuring outcomes. We can show the world how valuable arts and culture are, with numbers.’ 

I was infected by the excitement of Michael Chappell, who would become the Managing Director of Culture Counts. The opportunity to develop and build a software solution that would help people in a field I care deeply about was a dream come true.

How to measure value

I had many questions. What would we measure? How would we measure it? Arts criticism is subjective, not objective. How do we remain subjective and still make meaningful measurements? We spent months working with arts organisations and artists around Australia to answer these questions.

The first thing was a core set of words around which art is discussed and oriented. At Culture Counts we call them dimensions. Words that artists use to discuss their own work or words you might use to describe a work that you have experienced. How risky was a work? How original was it? How did it make you feel? Was it of high quality? Did you think it was authentic?

The second thing was to measure these dimensions in a way that makes sense. The key was to determine goals. What are you trying to do with a work? Are you aiming for it to be ‘risky’ or ‘aesthetically pleasing’ or ‘challenging’ or ‘high quality’? Once a producer knows what they're seeking they can ask their artistic peers and members of the public about their experience of the work. This way we can make our measurements meaningful by making them relative rather than objective or absolute.

What we have found is that most people enjoy finding out what others think of their work and whether their own artistic goals align with opinions of audiences and peers. Even in the case where opinions are wildly divergent it's still an interesting outcome. You are gathering useful information and numbers that can be used to support funding applications, inform future programming decisions and better communicate with audiences.

Building software at Culture Counts

We started with a humble prototype. Using open source software and agile, iterative development we outpaced larger tech companies. We delivered the first version of our product to Department of Culture and the Arts in Western Australia and they loved it.

Four years on our development team has grown. True to our roots we still use open source software. We're still using an iterative development methodology. This lets us craft our product in tune with our customers. Our software team is geographically diverse and nomadic. Our developers have worked from India, Australia, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Indonesia, the UK, and the USA. We are a small and close-knit team who value a friendly, equitable and productive culture.

Our development values

Some of the things we value in the software team:

  • Your agency. Humans are smarter than computers. We try to avoid frustrating you with too-clever interfaces. We're listening to what you want so we can build it for you.
  • Your safety and data integrity. Your privacy is of utmost importance to us.
  • Your experience. We want our software to be a joy to use, not just another tool. Good design is a feature.
  • Testing. Every release goes through multiple rounds of testing.

A note on software complexity

Software under continuous improvement almost always becomes more complex. We keep things simple by building modular components that talk together with well-defined interfaces. This allows us to build new things and plug them together like Lego, which means a better product for you that scales with demand.

That is the story of software development at Culture Counts. Thanks very much for reading.

Source: Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, 2013. David Zwirner Gallery

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