The impact of open data on arts and culture listings

Data Thistle
5 min readFeb 7, 2020


A response to the Nesta-funded report (pdf)

A safety barrier covered in fliers for festival shows.
“Wall of fliers” by Steve Greer (CC BY 2.0)

At the inception of The List (now Data Thistle) in 1985, we used the term ‘arts and entertainment’ to describe the domain focus of our magazine, with editorial and listings which were collected by hand from printed venue programmes. Since then we have developed a taxonomy of the much broader range of live events that we now cover and make available to others via an API with a freemium tier, widgets and feeds.

So, we have been working on live event listings for decades. In 2009, we succeeded in gaining Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) funding to lead a project in association with University of Glasgow, ACT Consultants, and Blue Compass to create an International Venue and Event Standard (IVES). We committed to making all outputs from this project freely available under a Creative Commons licence.

We now have the UK’s most extensive set of live events data with a summer 2019 peak of 620,000 future performances of 49,000 events at one of 85,000 venues across the UK. Distinctively, we acquire over 90% of this information as structured data direct from box offices, festivals, promoters and cinemas. CSV files and web site input supplement the most fragmented listings. For this cohort of suppliers, we offer back listings in structured data formats to share onwards.

We have oft-quoted that Ticketmaster research indicates the primary reason people don’t attend events is that they did not know about them. Unlike, say, weather information which is very widely available on apps and sites, live events data suffers from poor distribution even though a search for information on the current hot tickets lead to a plethora of sites with tour information. Broad reach applies to the top 5–10% of events measured by the audience — 90–95% of live events are underexposed.

We have everything to gain from improved interchangeability of listings. We welcome the light that the Nesta funded discovery report shines on this space.

An honest disclosure is required — the email subject on the exchange with Nesta that preceded this blog post was entitled ‘….and the allure of open data’. The word allure has positive connotations but also carries the weight of beguilement and seduction. We start by admitting to some defeat in the efforts we have made towards standards, and so have doubts about whether open data is necessarily the best place to start.

Our funded IVES project aimed to define a standard. We completed all we set out to do, but it became clear that there were two issues with the endeavour:

  • driving utilisation of the results would require much higher levels of ongoing effort than we could support or justify given there was no operating funding, and;
  • with a plethora of pre-existing event ids within venues and also proprietary, usually international services, that getting traction on any universal event id was going to be particularly hard, but that venue ids might be possible.

These issues lead us, after some years of operating, to archive the project.

Our work to date would lead us to comment on the report as follows:

  1. The scarcity of consideration given to the % of listings that are directly or indirectly created by international, non-UK companies or services seems an omission. We understand that setting an ambition for achieving an impact on UK listings alone is substantial in itself, but winning a level of multinational support for any change is probably essential.
  2. There is no review of options of possible schemas nor a reasoned outline of the advantages of, nor mention of possible limitations. Besides, the variability in a potential usage of any single schema means that unless properties are tightly defined, and extensibility is restricted, a commonality between the supply by different event organisers will be much limited.
  3. We estimate that 15% of our current listings events are put on by organisers who have no system expertise or support, so they are most probably not going to be able to make a listing available as open data. Yet it is this cohort that most needs assistance to get listings disseminated. We also know that the most significant future increases we can achieve in coverage will come from the community and hyper-local events.
  4. The stakeholders indicated in the report “that venues do want to get their listings out to a wider audience, but rarely as their most significant marketing issue. Issues like managing dynamic pricing or understanding the scheduling of other significant events were more likely to be raised before reaching wider audiences.” Our direct experience is that the most significant barrier to anti-clash projects is organiser and venues themselves, who want to see others information but not share their plans. A substantial hurdle to dynamic pricing is the slow speed with which updates to others in the supply chain takes place.
  5. Even if all organisers of all events published it as open data, it does not solve the problems of aggregation, whether for a local area or a service dedicated to an event genre, as there will still be much overlap between sources. In a world where all dance venues and promoters in London publish listings as Open Data, there would always be a significant job to do to provide a comprehensive London Dance listings service. A considerable minority of listings come from multiple sources.

So, to move to the opportunity highlighted by the report:

  • As we found with, there is potential for improved visibility and ease of distribution and exchange just from improved sharing of identifiers, notably venue ids, and ahead of the ambition to move to an open data approach.
  • As an objective in itself, improved understanding of the benefits of broader listings distribution would be a step forward. Even after 30 years, even with strong inbound demand to list with us from 10’s of thousands of venues at any one time, we still spend time with event organisers explaining the value of a listing. Any work that helps raise understanding will have our support.

The Nesta report suggests a round table and follow-on analysis programme, and The List would join with enthusiasm.

Do you work with events data? Think you can put our data to use? Get in touch anytime, we’d love to hear from you.