Is a Gilbert and Sullivan choir part of the heritage sector? Or is it merely a group of people enjoying themselves, singing music they love? What about a colliery silver band? And if they are part of the heritage sector, what does it matter?

What needs fixing

It matters because the COVID-19 pandemic created an urgent need to support the heritage sector through the lockdowns which was hard to quantify because neither the Department for Culture Media and Sport nor the Heritage Sector Arms-Length Bodies had either a map of the sector, or any meaningful baseline.

While Historic England has recently created a model to describe the shape of sector which is based on what sort of activities heritage organisations are carrying out, they haven’t yet been able to populate it so they can use it to size the sector. They know what organisations in the sector do, but not how many of them there are, the scale of their activity or the value of it.

Where we've got to so far

To begin to solve this problem Historic England recently commissioned The Audience Agency (TAA) and our partners MyCake to start establishing the size of the sector using publicly available data sets.

This is no straightforward task; SIC codes, the usual way of identifying what economic activity an organisation is undertaking, don’t accurately reflect the heritage sector. They under-represent the size of the sector perhaps by a factor of 10, partly because they don’t cover charities or public bodies who are responsible for most of the country’s valuable heritage assets and activity.

TAA and MyCake took an innovative approach to this task, applying machine learning approaches to publicly available datasets to accurately identify heritage organisations and to explore the boundaries and structure of heritage sector. The first phase of this project, completed in March 2022, used data from the Charities Commission about organisations in the North East of England and has served as proof of concept before the approach is rolled out to other data sets across the whole of the country.

How we'll find the solution

Expanding the scope of the project won’t be easy; all of the relevant data sets are in different formats, vary widely in quality and are definitely not interoperable. It will take a deep understanding both of the heritage sector and of data techniques to carry out this project successfully.

This project aligns very closely with TAA’s mission to enable the UK’s cultural and heritage organisations to increase their relevance, reach and resilience and MyCake’s purpose to aggregate, analyse and present data to support decision making, policy and strategy development. The project also builds on our recently published scoping study for DCMS on financial and other foundational data for the cultural sector and supports our plans to extend Audience Finder to the Heritage Sector.

Ultimately, determining whether a Gilbert and Sullivan choir is part of the heritage sector or not is an answer that will lie in the data, not a human’s subjective judgement.˙