University of Edinburgh DDI: How data can help creatives revolutionise how they do business

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Creative Informatics’ efforts in supporting creatives to become confident in handling new data collection techniques is revolutionising entrepreneurship, discovers David Lee

It’s surprising how many people can’t do an “elevator pitch”, but Nicola Osborne nails it.

“What is Creative Informatics?” I ask. They reply (well within the allotted 30 seconds): “We help creative people do new things with data and data-driven innovation, including AI [artificial intelligence].

“Essentially, we allow people to do innovative things that are creative, but involve data.”


Osborne is programme manager for Creative Informatics, one of the first projects set up by the University of Edinburgh’s Data-Driven Innovation initiative back in 2018. It has joined up Edinburgh’s world-class creative industries and tech sector – and made magic happen.

“It’s about making sure the creative community can access the opportunities of technology to do new things, to adopt tech and data in new ways,” says Osborne. “It’s raising capacity so creatives are not scared by data, to help them create new business models and new products, services and experiences.”

Caroline Parkinson, director of creative industries at Edinburgh Futures Institute, says: “You have variable confidence and abilities with data in creative business – from the basics like handling data, storage, transferring files and labelling, to the exciting stuff around getting insights from different data sets.

“Once you have ironed your data pile, you’ve got a new wardrobe to wear – so what do you do with that?”


Aiming higher

Ideally, the aim is to use that knowledge and insight to deliver better customer and audience experiences in the creative industries.

The Creative Informatics team realised early on that this approach required seedcorn funding for creators to come up with ideas and innovations, and to create businesses.

“Part of what we did had to be awarding funds for the creative ideas to occur,” explains Parkinson. “Then if it became a new thing, and the person wanted to run a business, they would have to be capable of doing that. So we put in business skills ‘scaffolding’ – so the project wasn’t just data capability, data creativity, and innovation, it also helped creative people to become entrepreneurs.”

But what was the gap in the market that Creative Informatics was filling, the challenge it was addressing?

“In education, there is pressure to see sciences and creativity as separate things,” says Osborne. “A lot of creative people get turned off by maths and science early on and data is very tied up with that. There’s also quite a high percentage of people with neurodiversity in the arts, which can mean that they have different access requirements, and need supported in a different way. I don’t think it’s being scared, per se, but when people don’t feel confident, or qualified, we can help.

“On the flip side, there’s loads of data and tech people excited by doing creative things. It’s a very creative process to code and problem solve in a technical way, but they can be just as intimidated about how creatives talk and interact.

“They are very different styles of community. A lot of what we’ve done has been brokering relationships and breaking down barriers between the creative industries and technology.”

Chris Speed, former director of Edinburgh Futures Institute, used the phrase “Hipster, Hacker, Hustler” to illustrate the challenge.

Parkinson explains: “The hackers are the coders, the ‘techies’, who are well-supported and confident in themselves and their abilities. The hustlers have the money, and Edinburgh is good at understanding money and investment. But the hipsters [the creatives] were maybe less confident and needed support.”

Osborne continues: “It’s theoretically the recipe for a perfect start-up – tech, money and creativity. But quite often in creative start-ups, they’re all the same person!

“Creatives [hipsters] were not getting the same support and benefits [as hackers and hustlers]. We helped by making introductions, by saying, ‘You need to meet this person’. That’s a role I expect us to play until the end of time. There’s all kinds of collaborations outside of what we funded that wouldn’t have happened if we’d not been there.”

Parkinson also highlights the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on creating additional urgency around the Creative Informatics programme: “Everyone going online meant Nicola and the team worked really hard to get money out of the door because a lot of freelancers weren’t getting support,” she says. “We also wanted to help people digitally pivot during Covid.”

Osborne adds: “Support included a 12-week programme of weekly webinars, with Visual Arts Scotland, on Zoom before that was really a thing. That brought the community together, helped reduce isolation and we paid almost 50 speakers to take part.

“There was a radical shift in how open people were to using technology. That’s had a long-lasting impact on the creative industries.”

Talking of impact, what’s the legacy of Creative Informatics, beyond the economic impact and jobs? (Some highlights are presented in the panel above.) It’s events, ethics… and kind of everything.

Parkinson has organised a CreativeTech Scotland Gathering set to take place on Friday, 28 June. “This creative informatics community is awesome, but they look to us a bit for knowledge and inspiration and collaboration,” she says. “We want to keep that embrace around that community, so I’ve created the CreativeTech Scotland Gathering, to do that.

“I hope it can provide inspiration, and offer access to learn how others are using creative technology. We have the resource to convene this community, and bring ideas and academic research to them – and hopefully it will inspire, inform and create more collaborations.”

Osborne points out that another legacy is a strong ethical approach to using data: “We made sure the data work we were supporting was appropriate to our values, and required anyone we were funding to go through an ethics process, covering equality, diversity, inclusion, and also environmental impact. We’ve made everything openly available and our approach has been widely adopted.”

One of the adopters is CoSTAR – Convergence of Screen Technologies and Performance in Real Time. The national initiative across five UK hubs focuses on virtual production and immersion.

In Scotland, Abertay University is leading on immersive gaming and virtual production, while the University of Edinburgh will focus on screen and how AI can support virtual production.

Professor Melissa Terras, director of Creative Informatics and Edinburgh lead for CoSTAR, says: “The mix of the technology and creative communities in Edinburgh is truly something special. The truth is that the technology industry needs the energy and innovative ideas coming from a broad range of creative practitioners, and our inclusive approach allows new, good ideas to flourish here.”

There is clearly a lot happening as a result of Creative Informatics, but Osborne says it’s not rocket science – just talented people needing some help.

“The creative industries are very diverse and talented in Edinburgh, and just needed a little nudge to play with data to do amazing things,” they say.

“It feels like there has been a real shift in the creative community in the region – and it feels like that will carry on long beyond us.”

Creative Informatics: a return of £15 for every £1 invested 

It has been calculated that Creative Informatics will have added £53.2 million to Edinburgh’s regional economy between 2019 and 2026, with 47 new companies and around 445 jobs created or safeguarded. This represents a return of around £15 for every £1 invested by the programme.

“We helped so many different people in so many different ways and they went on to access about

£7.6 million of further funding and investment,” says Nicola Osborne. “I think that’s a really good deal.”

Creative Informatics has played a part in getting many young companies on the road to success. It was an early investor in TouchLab, which is creating a “robotic skin” to give robots a sense of touch, which could be groundbreaking in areas like healthcare. Creative Informatics gave TouchLab £12,000 for design work, which allowed them to keep going to a point where they have now received £3.5m in venture capital funding and are trialling their e-skin in a hospital in Finland

Viapontica AI was also supported in developing technology for automatic image cropping, in conjunction with The List magazine, as well as audio design company Black Goblin, which started out working with synthetic audio for film-making, and is now using AI in its new product, Thol.

Many smaller firms have also been supported, such as Cloud Quilting, which “takes data as the starting point to design quilt patterns in new ways”.

Around 140 research and development projects have been funded, and another 220 people supported through the Creative Bridge programme.

There have also been other partnerships, such as the ongoing work with the Creative Community Hubs Network in Western Hailes, Edinburgh, which has helped 12 organisations. including Collective Text, which creates accessible and artistically-driven subtitles – where the titles move and integrate with images to make it feel more like a listening experience.


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