Can data science safeguard the future of Edinburgh's festivals?

Some were predictable – climate change, a changing tourism demographic and the growing influence of China on the global economy.

Edinburgh's Royal Mile in 2020 compared to 2019. Picture: TSPL

But it was the fifth driver – an unpredictable event – that has chillingly come to pass, just a few months on from publication.

VisitScotland describes such an event as one with “potentially severe consequences”, and the coronavirus pandemic has certainly had a devastating impact on Scotland’s tourism and hospitality industries.

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And there are few areas of activity that have felt the terrible economic impact more felt than Edinburgh’s festivals, which are worth upwards of £300 million a year to the city’s economy.

Instead of enjoying the shows, street theatre and the fireworks concert this week, marking the end of another wildly successful year, Edinburgh’s festivals are contemplating an uncertain future.

If they are to survive Covid-19, they will have to re-think every aspect of their packed programmes, from visitor safety to performances.

As Julia Amour, director of umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh, told the Scottish Parliament’s culture committee a few weeks ago: “Like others working to build back a better society, we need to adapt and renew while holding onto our fundamental purpose and value.”

So could data science help to save the future of festivals in the Capital? Joshua Ryan-Saha, the head of tourism and festivals at Edinburgh’s Data Driven Innovation (DDI) initiative definitely thinks it has a significant role to play.

“Data can certainly help,” he says. “Collaboration in the tourism, hospitality and events sector is the key to success, and this means sharing data too.

“Organisations need to be able to access shared insights into potential customers, even pool resources to attract visitors back and to put in place the necessary infrastructure to control infection.”

And Ryan-Saha suggests new approaches such as the digital delivery of events and using technology to manage crowds, which were already a growing problem in the Capital. He says:

“Before the crisis we were thinking about secure, ethical and anonymous ways to understand tourism overcrowding and busy-ness and to encourage visitor dispersal across the whole of Scotland.

“Now, understanding crowd and people movement is useful in ­identifying potential bottlenecks and different paths people can take to maintain social distancing.

“Predicting hotspots before they occur and using that to incentivise different places to visit or opening up new public spaces for events may help manage the city”

And he highlights five University of Edinburgh data projects, which are being funded by DDI, as examples of how data can be used to support the tourism and festivals sector.

These include a scheme with the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group to help the Capital’s tourism businesses to recover from the adverse economic effects of Covid-19 by

analysing data to support targeted marketing.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is also confident that a clever use of data will help save the festival, which last year attracted visitors from 150 countries and sold more than 850,000 tickets.

The Fringe Society was working with data scientists before the pandemic hit, causing events to be cancelled.

A spokesperson for the Fringe says: “The role of data in helping solve the challenges and identify new opportunities to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is vital and has been part of the thinking of the Fringe Society for a number of years now.

“The Fringe Society is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Informatics programme and we’ve been working with data scientists to help develop new ways to aid audience discovery.

“The joy of the Fringe is the enormous range of work to see, and we know our audiences are keen to try something new. But with so many shows each year, audiences are looking for guidance and support to discover something new and expand their experience.

“Our project is exploring how performance work can be thought of differently – rather than, ‘Do I want a theatre or a dance show?’, we’d like audiences to be able to navigate by mood, and finding new ways to use the data we hold about shows and content will allow us to develop a new way of thinking about how this can be searched and navigated by audiences keen to find something undiscovered.”

The Fringe is also working with the National Library of Scotland to digitise the Fringe’s programme archive, which it hopes will become an open data source for anyone who is interested to undertake research, allowing new ideas and tools to emerge.

And data will be a key factor in how the Fringe understands and responds to the outcomes of the pandemic, “from the basics of understanding where our audiences come from, to the UK-wide surveys about how ­people will feel about returning to live performances and their expectations”.

The Fringe spokesperson adds: “Looking at this data for our own audiences and being able to compare it with the national trends will help us understand the nuance of our own audiences and plan better for what is an unknown future for us all.”

Shaping the future is what data scientists do best, and a team of University of Edinburgh students recently took part in a pan-European “hackathon” to explore solutions to challenges related to Covid-19.

The team, working with the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, designed an immersive experience, EdinGo, which connected international audiences and performers within virtual venues.

Using Google Street View and Twitch performer rooms, the team designed a digital festivals experience, which Briana Pegado of ­Creative Edinburgh describes as “the future”.

She says: “It is clear the future is here … I believe we are experiencing the birth of the new artist – the data scientist.

“If we look at data for what it is, information, artists and creative people have always distilled information into their creative practice or expression.

“It is just now in our modern day that we can analyse, manipulate, collate, and collect data sets using machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other technologies on a scale we have not been able to before.

“With these new processes and ways of working, new disciplines have emerged across the creative

sector, from AI bots creating ephemeral pieces of visual art to craft ­makers using bird migration data to create new patterns for their textile creations.

“The future of the creative industries and the future of data are

interdependent. Initiatives like EdinGo are just one of many examples of how data and tech can be applied to enhance our physical spaces and our understanding of our physical world.”

Keeping track of tourist hotspot trends

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many cities across Europe were already using data to redesign their tourism industries.

Last year, business development champion London First used anonymised and aggregated data provided by Airbnb and Mastercard to track the impact of international visitor spending across London.

This allowed the organisation to analyse trends in the behaviour of different nationalities, which showed that Chinese tourists prefer the West End, with Germans and Italians happier to explore attractions beyond the city centre.

Writing in the New Statesman, Matt Hill, London First’s programme director, said: “A three-pronged approach of data exchange, innovative analytics and digital transformation must be leveraged, to help cities better manage their growth challenges, improve efficiency and support economic development.”

Meanwhile, Amsterdam has recently used data science to reduce the impact of hordes of drunken tourists.

The city has put a “digital fence” around areas particularly badly affected by large groups. When a visitor enters these zones they are automatically reminded on Facebook and Instagram to treat the city with respect.

And at the Venice Project Centre, set up 30 years ago to improve tourism numbers in the Italian city, its business incubator is busy working on a number of data projects, such as smart transport apps, a Smart Control Room for the city council, and a hybrid mortgage scheme which uses tourism income to help with repayments.

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