During the spring of 2021, CultureSource Tech Expert-In-Residence Jon Riley has worked to advise arts organizations on their information technology infrastructure and work as a thought-partner for developing new innovations. As the pandemic has caused more arts programming to exist in the digital space, a solid understanding of technology’s relationship to arts is essential to keep cultural expression alive.
We caught up with Jon to find out what he learned and advice he would give cultural organizations looking to improve their tech infrastructure.
What are some commonalities you noticed while speaking with CultureSource members? What themes were the most consistent?
It was a pleasure having the opportunity to speak with CultureSource’s members about their technological challenges, especially given the difficult social contexts we were all thrown into. There were two blocks of key commonalities that accurately capture where we are in nonprofit technology.
- CultureSource members made the push to switch to virtual programming and many did it well! Taking the time to regroup and pivot to supporting their constituents at a distance takes remarkable poise and I was thoroughly impressed with members’ ingenuity and resilience in this area.
- Almost every conversation I had led back to questions of staff capacity and information systems. Pandemic work made many of our organizations reconsider whether the way we work is actually effective from our homes. This area is especially tricky for organizations who rely on analog workflows.
Online Event Production
Live Streaming Technologies
Customer Relationship Management
Finance/Donor Management Systems
How did the DAAP program/tech expert-in-residence help participants plan for sustainable futures?
The program as we designed it gave CultureSource members and myself a place to brainstorm together about both the past and present of each organization, looking forward at some steps or goals toward where each one sought to be in the future. Part of the beauty of the program was how open ended it was, allowing us to explore all aspects of each member’s technology challenges and aspirations rather than just solely technical ones.
What will be the lasting impact of COVID-19 on arts and culture programming as we move into the post-pandemic era?
I’m a firm believer that the future of work will be largely hybrid in nature. Art and culture work is no exception. A silver lining to the tumult of the past year is that many of our organizations underwent a digital transformation out of necessity. The next step will be building capacity to maintain technological infrastructures and continuing to utilize them as a complement to typical programming. Part of building resilience is crafting a flexible and responsive technology infrastructure and doing contingency planning to adapt to a wide range of circumstances.
Top Five Tips
For arts and cultural organizations looking to improve their tech infrastructure or explore new innovations
Leverage your communities ability and willingness to participate in virtual programming and build hybrid event structures as cornerstone of your events planning process.
Purchasing state-of-the-art equipment and not knowing how to use it is a waste of your resources. Invest in training and support whenever you are becoming acquainted with new technology. Instead of costly equipment, hire additional help if you need it.
Implementation ALWAYS takes longer than you plan. Build a buffer in your timeline to account for Murphy’s Law.
Technical solutions and automation won’t solve issues with workflows or process. When approaching technology solutions, a good flowchart documenting your workflow and process goes a long way. Most technology problems are actually process problems.
If your computer is more than five years old, it is likely impeding your ability to work reliably. Always start with your computer and internet as the nonnegotiable foundation of your technology spending and budgeting.
Jon‘s expertise spans UX research and design, cybersecurity policy, and technology strategy with a focus on social justice organizations and the NGO sector. In addition to serving as CultureSource’s Tech Expert-in-Residence, he has worked at various nonprofit organizations, serving as leadership through organizational digital transformations. Jon is the founder and principal of Technology for Art and Cultural Transformation (TACT) and has served a range of clients, locally in Detroit to the international context. Jon received his Master of Urban Planning and Design and M.S. in Information from the University of Michigan, and is currently working on his PhD in Information.
Jon had a proclivity for tinkering with technology at a young age, but it wasn’t until he completed his Master’s program when he took an interest in mapping and spatial analysis. “Around this time, I also started working in finance and accounting for a Detroit based fiscal sponsorship organization and experienced what I call ‘technology-out-of-necessity’ rather than an intentionally designed and focused technology infrastructure,” said Jon.
Working in this environment inspired Jon to think about how he could made a difference in the sector. “I’ve always been drawn to nonprofits and social justice work, so using my ability and skills to support folks doing the work and realizing the world we need just made sense.”
Jon’s PhD research centers on the intersection of urban planning, science, and technology studies and looks at the ways digital infrastructure, non-digital infrastructure, and citizens shape or co-produce one another. “My focus right now is how the history of transportation infrastructure in Detroit is shaping the present and future of urban transit systems globally,” said Jon.
Jon’s Big Questions
- What design principles and decisions are baked into our transportation technologies and infrastructure?
- How do embedded computers in cars, pavement, and smart phones shape policy decisions around transportation infrastructure?
- Do these computers and their algorithms contain inherent bias towards one mode or another and if so, how?
Through research, Jon is working to elevate the voices of people who use and rely on legacy systems like buses and streetcars, and who are almost never consulted in the design of the next generation of vehicles, technologies and systems. “My research rests on the premise if you are designing a technological system, rigorous user testing is necessary to understand the social needs your product or system is addressing,” Jon says. “It’s strange to say I study algorithmic decision-making because I am interested in social justice and equity, but that is truly the case!”