Guest blog by LSE alum Vishal Kumar, cultural data scientist at CASA, The Bartlett at UCL researching the economic and social impact of culture in cities. He uses a combination of data science, urban economics and social media analytics having written several blog posts and co-authored an academic paper. Vishal is a data science consultant and advisor to a range of public and private cultural institutions including Futurecity, Waltham Forest Council – the London Borough of Culture programme, Art Night, Vastari Group, and the Illuminated River Foundation and is a guest lecturer at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Christie’s Education. Vishal is also interested in championing culture in cities through entrepreneurship having been selected onto the Entrepreneur First London 12 Cohort and he was a semi-finalist in the Creative Industries Award for the Mayor of London’s Entrepreneur Competition 2019. Vishal previously studied at the London School of Economics and Sotheby’s Institute of Art and worked at ArtTactic and at Sotheby’s as a Data Scientist.

What exactly does a cultural data scientist do?

A Cultural Data Scientist is someone who uses data science methods and techniques to research the arts and culture. I actually invented and coined that job title about six months ago. As far as I am aware, I’m the only person actively using this job title, but I am encouraging more people to use it! You can read the original blog post on my website called “I’m a Cultural Data Scientist” or on Medium.

I use a combination of data science and visualization, machine learning and computer vision, urban economics and spatial analysis, and social media analytics to research the economic and social impact of culture in cities. I’m especially interested in the science of cities and art and culture’s influence within that context. I work as a data science consultant and advisor for a range of public and private cultural institutions including Futurecity, Waltham Forest Council for the London Borough of Culture programme, Art Night, Vastari Group and several others. This builds from my three-and-a-half year career at Sotheby’s auction house as a Forward Deployed Data Scientist.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

A lot of my work is project based and over the course of the month I typically work for two or three different clients at the same time. For example, recently I’ve been working for Art Night and Vastari Group. I also study a part-time research degree at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at The Bartlett at UCL so I allocate about five days a month to this.

A typical day at work will comprise of Python coding for data cleaning and analysis and then more advanced statistical programming or machine learning, as well as JavaScript and HTML coding for front-end web visualizations. Moreover, I use these skills to stream data from APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and I design interactive dashboards. I also create a lot of content on social media for my personal brand so I allocate at least 30 minutes a day where I am either curating ideas and writing captions for Instagram or writing a blog post on Medium.

In April, I was accepted on to the Entrepreneur First London 12 Cohort so my time at the moment is focused on building a deep tech startup from scratch. I am currently exploring scalable business applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence, specifically computer vision, for city science use cases. I’m working with a colleague to build a product which can help understand the impact of culture and the science of cities. I’m enjoying it a lot.

What skills did you learn at LSE that you find yourself still using?

I would say that I am still using my core quantitative skills such as statistics, calculus and econometrics. Moreover, I am also using more applied quantitative skills such geospatial analysis and GIS as well as applied qualitative skills such as economic survey design, both of which I learnt in my Research Methods module with Dr Neil Lee. I know that there are some hilarious memes and jokes about LSE100, and whether I explicitly learnt these skills on LSE100 or not, critical thinking is a very important skill I learnt at LSE which I use every day to evaluate decisions.

How has your experience been of combining art and quantitative analysis?

I started by applying statistics and quantitative analysis to art market trends at ArtTactic. Then at Sotheby’s I would analyse different sub-markets – Impressionist & Modern art, Contemporary art, Old Master Paintings, Diamonds etc. – and also different artists’ markets – Pablo Picasso vs Claude Monet and Francis Bacon vs Adrian Ghenie – to try and win consignments. Then I started to get really interested in data visualization by communicating my analyses using graphic design. I took this a bit further and actually started using code, geometric and mathematical functions and quantitative reasoning to make data art. Finally, I am also studying a part-time MRes in Spatial Data Science and Visualization and I now completely blend skills – data science, data visualization and creative coding – in almost all of
my projects whilst I am researching art and culture in cities.

What would be your advice to LSE students hoping to pursue a career in cultural industries?

London’s cultural and creative industries are booming; there was a 24% growth in jobs since 2012. Whilst there is growing potential, research conducted by Victoria Pinoncely and Mario Washington-Ihieme (both are LSE alumni) for the Centre for London found evidence that that certain groups of young people are not able to break into the cultural and creative industries based on their social class, gender and ethnicity. BAME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) workers represented only 23% in the Creative and Cultural sector. Moreover, only 14% of managers, directors and senior officials were BAME. These are seriously shocking statistics. Not only is there huge underrepresentation, but there’s also a lack of diversity amongst decision makers and role-models in the Creative and Cultural industries. Things are definitely improving, but you really need to do research and reach out to as many people as you can via LinkedIn. If you’re an outsider you really need to prove yourself and the best way to do this is build a portfolio of your work. Regardless of your background, if you’re looking to pursue a career in the cultural and creative industry and need advice or mentorship feel free to reach out to me anytime

What do you foresee for the future of your career and your industry?

My career’s is a bit of a mixed bag. I am an analyst, academic, artist and also an entrepreneur. I don’t have a fixed career path. I freely morph in an out of those different roles as I choose and see fit; I take the learnings from one and apply them to another. In terms of trends and industries, there are a few things I am certainly focused on. In short, I’m interested in the venn diagram between smart cities and information of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the creative and cultural sector.
Cities are more important to humanity than ever before. More people will continue to live in cities, and cities need to become smarter in terms of technology and also governance to cater for everyone in society. Culture is also more important to cities and nations than ever before. As more people and families reside and tourists visit cities around the world, they are increasingly demanding, and cities are also supplying, an enriched quality of life and creative and cultural experiences.

Once Britain leaves the European Union, industries such as Finance, Real-estate, and Agriculture will certainly take a hit, but the Creative and Cultural industry will become an even important pillar of our economy. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing areas of the UK economy. A report from Arts Council England in April 2019 found that sector added £10.8 billion to the UK economy at the last count in 2016, more than agriculture, some areas of UK manufacturing, and twice the amount as the Premier League (Football). London alone attracted almost 20 million international tourists in 2018, more than Paris and New York, and was ranked the top destination in the world by TripAdvisor. Sir Nicholas Serota, the chairman of the Arts Council England, called the arts “an essential part of the British economy”.

One of my missions in the future is to understand the economic and social impact Culture and Creativity is having on our societies within the smart cities content.

For more information about career opportunities, have a look at our employment sector guides about the Arts and Data, Information and Technology.