Tuesday 21 January 2014

PAS Spin Generator: Looking for New Audiences

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is doing what it calls an "Audience Survey" (sic) as though it was one big reality TV show:
we would greatly appreciate your help in building a better understanding of our audiences and their interaction with the PAS. The responses from this survey will be used to help us develop a project proposal which partly aims to help us reach new audiences.
Yep, you guessed it, they are after MORE money. The survey will close on 21st February 2014, you have to send it to "Claire Costin, Britain, Europe and Prehistory, The British Museum" and they'll even send you a prepaid envelope if you ask, because (this next bit is a laugh): 
criticisms ensure that our audience receives the best possible experience from us.
Yes, the PAS love their critics - they give them their fullest attention and spare no effort to engage with their concerns. Let's have a look at some of the questions:

The first section is called:  "Interaction with the PAS"....

"1. Which of the following best describes you?" The PAS is gobbling up millions of quid to outreach to members of the public - so its odd, is it not that such a category is missing from the options. My Mum, who pays for it, would have to go as "other".

"2. How did you first hear about the PAS?" In my case none of the above, but what, for goodness' sake, about newspaper articles initiated by the Scheme's (Museum's) Press Office about Treasure finds and that godamnawfull "Britain's Secret Treasures" series, the justification for doing which, surely, WAS to showcase the Scheme? Why the silence about what, in the opinion of a number of people, is the most damaging element of PAS outreach?   

"3. What is your main area of interest in the PAS?" free text (failing to differentiate between the PAS database and the PAS itself), then a differentiation: "4. How often do you visit the PAS database?", "5. How often do you visit the PAS website?" - spin-stats generators. 

"6. If you visit the website, what do you use it for?" Completely crazy. Just a moment ago the responder was asked to differentiate database from website, so then in this question discussing the website, most of the options given actually refer to the database. Now, interestingly the only option available corresponding to the aims the PAS started out with, gobbling up sixteen million pounds to do (informing the public about archaeology and that all-elusive "beat practice") is subsumed under a general heading "To learn about archaeology and archaeological finds in general". Basically I'd say the PAS website does not do that either. 

Question 7 "Generally, what is your main reason for visiting the PAS database and website?" is a free text box, go on, somebody write "lern about best practice" and give them something to spin in their summary.

Question  8. "How important is each of the following PAS website features to you?"is a cracker.
I'd say there are several categories totally missing here in a Scheme set up to liaise with the public as a whole on portable antiquity issues. It seems from this that the PAS see themselves as a show-and-tell virtual museum of "Treasures", gatekeeping typological information.  The question should, surely, be "How important do you think the following should be for the PAS to fulfil its mission?"

The second section is called:  "Finders". This seems to assume that everybody answering this form is a "finder" despite in the options above having the facility to be just a casual visitor to the site and database.

"9. Which best describes the circumstances under which you normally find objects?" (this raises a question whether in "undertaking leisure activities such as walking, gardening" one can talk of "normally" finding finds, but that is by the by). Note the unavoidable contrast between the phrasing of the question "actively searching for finds" (aka collectable geegaws) and the official standpoint that these people are all "researching history". They are not, and this is an admission that in reality the PAS is well aware of it, so why don't they tell it like it is more often?

Now, actually, there are a whole load of questions the PAS could be asking "finder" about the way they go about finding things to find and places to find them (not omitting whether they always have written/verbal permission and so on), but they skip over all that to what interests them most for the generation of spin statistics, and this question surely concerns the subject matter of the first section, interaction with the PAS: "10. Do you record finds with the PAS?" (Yes/No) "10a. If yes, why do you record finds with the PAS?", "10b. If no, why do you not record finds with the PAS?".

What about the missing question:
"What proportion of your finds do you record with the PAS?"
and why not also since the survey is about helping the PAS to reach new audiences: "Where do you do this most frequently?" (rally, club meeting, finds days, I come to the FLO's office, she comes to my home, other) and: "Are there any finds you would not show your FLO? Why?".

Also why not "Do you record your finds in other databases, and why, what have they got we have not?" or is that the sort of "criticism" this audience survey is not interested in hearing?

But of course the more answers they have to questions like these, the more difficult it is to produce the spin statistics "900 000 objects recorded today, 93% of survey respondents say they record with the PAS!!!" which is obviously the sort of thing they are aiming at.

But then, if we (really are) talking about reaching new audiences, what about the most important one:
Shouldn't they have asked "Are you a Landowner"and "do you have any archaeological sites on your property"?

Section 3 "PAS Accessibility" starts with a question for remote island fishermen living in a cardboard box on a deserted heath: 11. Do you have regular access to the Internet?

The next question really tickled me: "12. Do you find that there are any barriers to interacting with the PAS?" Oh yes!! There is no public forum, the PAS participation in social media is passive and totally lacklustre. The PAS consistently fail to engage with what is happening on "finders'" ("partners") blogs and web-based discussion lists. In this the organization is dropping behind more forward looking corporate bodies in grasping the significance of the use of social media. The PAS has almost totally turned its back on the opportunities they offer for outreach, propagating the message of the PAS and interests of archaeology, best practice and correcting any erroneous information out there. They still rely on a unilateral rather than interactive format, putting out "Scheme news" bulletins, but consistently failing to engage (or indeed inform) in any meaningfully detailed manner. This is despite that being identified by an assessment of the Scheme published back in the last decade as a key area for future development. In this area the PAS is basically back in the 1980s.

The sixteen million pound PAS, surely, should be at the cutting edge of discussions on the treatment of Britain's portable heritage, initiating and encouraging public debate with the involvement of all stakeholders. Instead, what we see is that they are simply concerned to keep their heads down in a huddle with their finds-showing "partners" and try to dissuade any discussion, either within their closed circle or outside it, of the issues involved in what they are doing. People trying to interact with the Scheme in this manner have been accused by the PAS (an archaeological 'outreach' organization) of making “aggressive archaeological postings” in the public media and have labelled them "Trolls" (a put-down their metal detecting "partners" find immensely comforting). That is not "interaction" and is alienating part of their potential "audience".

"13. What would help make it easier for you to interact with the PAS?" Reinstating the public forum, undoubtedly, with a member of staff responsible for the use of social media to enable the Scheme to properly interact with all sections of its "audience". The financing of such a full-time post should be a priority of any project concerned with the interactions between the PAS and the people who not only use the Scheme, but also pay for it and have a right not only to a transparent presentation of what is going on in and around the Scheme but also a chance to debate heritage issues raised. FLOs should be encouraged to engage more actively and honestly in work time with the public debate and not be restricted to the role of passive recipients and recorders of (and gatekeepers to) masses of unrelated information about loose finds.

Why not?

"14. How would you rate each of the following PAS website features?"
Excellent       Good        Fair        Poor       Don’t Know/Not Applicable
Get it? Two options to be positive, only one to be negative, the oldest trick in the book! Where is "bloody awful"?

After an improvement a year or so back both the website and database are slipping back again. The website in particular is incredibly poorly organized and basically has about the same material in the same tired outdated and ugly graphic layout as it had a decade ago. The whole website needs a revamp and needs rethinking, what is the PAS in today's archaeological world? The database is as clunky again as it always was, the search features do not always work, "tokens do not match" it frequently says, when they do. In addition some of the database features are hard to find with gimmicky inserts in the middle below which are the details wanted. The comments section of the database, inviting public interaction with the record was broken when I tried to use it. What kind of "interaction" is that? The PAS needs to reappoint an education officer and their first task should be to put some proper "meat" into the website for the information of the public that pays for it, what is archaeology, what are the issues over portable antiquities? Without the spin, tell it like it is.

"15. Are there any other comments you would like to make about your interaction with the PAS?"
Yes, I am not a "troll". There are questions you should be answering, not keeping silent about.

The fourth section is "About You" "16. What is your gender?" "7. Please indicate your age group". Then the UKIP question: "18. Please choose one option below that best describes your ethnic group or background". So they are categorising their audience by ethnic origins? The options offered are a real dog's dinner (and mercifully misses out 'eastern Europeans' - it seems the most important thing is we are all "White"). What ethnic obsessive wrote this and why?  Then we have hidden social profiling: "19a. What area do you live in?" and "19b. What is your postcode?" (and what are they going to do with that? revise their C2s and Ds assessment on postcode data?).

This is a cracker:  "20. What is the highest level of education you have completed?" Many (metal detecting) finders cannot write a coherent sentence to save their lives. But the PAS have sorted that out by lumping those with two CSEs together in the same category as those with twelve O levels. Those for whom "formal learning was a challenge" as Minister Lammy put it will not feel hard done by, but this hardly gives an accurate picture of the cognitive potential of the larger part of their audience. There is also a question on whether the user has an archaeology degree (no doubt to produce spin-stats about how useful the PAS database is to professional research). There is then a question about employment status followed by one on whether the user is "currently a member of a heritage group or society" (and then metal detecting club is listed as one of the options! O tempore...)

The PAS is a sixteen million pound showcase publicly funded project run by one of Britain's most important museums. Yet they seem incapable of gathering even the most basic information about the people involved in a manner which will produce useful results. We have seen this time and time again with them. It is a foregone conclusion the manner in which these results will be presented, as one huge success, and another mass of spun statistics generating complacency will swill around the public domain. What is being ignored and not achieved will be swept, as usual, under the carpet.I have no doubts that if any of my readers wrote a critical comment in one of the boxes, it might even find itself in the report, as "proof" that the PAS are presenting "a balanced picture" and they "do listen". They've done that before, but you can look at those comments in the three previous reviews and see what actually has done about them.  In a word, nothing.

It seems the PAS is targeting this survey to get answers from its "partners", artefact hunting metal detectorists already within the purview of the Scheme. They are promising them on the forums that filling in the form ("it will only take 15 minutes") will "help the hobby" - as if "helping the hobby take more and more stuff from archaeological sites" is what they are being paid for. There has at the time of writing however been not a single promotion by the PAS of the Survey on any archaeological forum (the CBA's Britarch for example), or any other medium where there is a chance that it could be answered by amateur archaeology enthusiasts who are NOT involved in collecting. Neither does it seem is there any concerted attempt whatsoever to reach out and get information from the parts of the PAS audience not in metal detecting clubs, not  in contact with the PAS or on an artefact hunting forum.  To reach out to a NEW audience, it seems a bit daft getting information solely from the existing one.  Let us see some random citizen-in-the-street surveys. But that would be too much effort, eh? Far easier to persuade a proportion of gullible metal detectorists incapable of independent thinking that a better future for their hobby depends on them filling in the form and they'll not only obligingly fill them in in droves, but also obligingly write what they think makes the PAS look good.

I am going to urge my Mum to fill in their dozy form. It seems to me that it is precisely to people like my Mum these people should be outreaching, they should be in their New Audience. They pay for the Scheme, and the Scheme spends their money pandering to a minor exploitive group and failing to tell the rest of us how it really is, and this "survey" is just part of the insidious process of their spin-generation.


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