Community network mapping: just get going!

Mapping a community network is an art as much as a science. Solid methodology is important for professional purposes, of course (see for heavy-duty mapping processes the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping). Still, don’t let the need for formalized process get in the way of starting to make more sense of your own community. Rather than waiting until you have it all figured out,  just get going and get your mapping hands dirty. No need to use fancy tools, just start capturing and reflecting upon what you see, using only a sheet of paper, if need be. You can always convert those paper representations into electronic form later.

2017.09.21 kalolo asp 12
Mapping a local farming community initiative in Kalolo, Malawi, September 2017

Asking the right questions

Here are some of the key questions useful for starting your own community network mapping process. Starting point in your analysis should be the interactions that make up the community. You can’t simply “declare a community to be”:a thriving, healthy community is an evolving network of vibrant interactions. Here are some of the key aspects of these community interactions to be mapped:

  • What are key community interactions? These include activities, workflows, business processes, initiatives, projects or whatever else you call the dynamics that make your community tick.
  • What goals or themes are the interactions about? Interactions don’t just happen, they serve a purpose. These purposes give meaning to the way the community works and grows. Such purposes can be very concrete, like a specific objective with a set deadline. A purpose, however, can also be a much more fuzzy theme, such as “contributing to culture and heritage” (see, for instance, how we used the EU URBACT “urban topics” to map and connect European social innovation iniatives).
  • Which participants are involved in starting, doing, and evaluating these interactions? Participants can be individual persons, roles people play, organizations, networks, or even other communities. Don’t just look at those involved in doing the interaction, but also those participants who play a role in getting the interactions going, and interpreting their outputs and outcomes.
  • What key content  is being used/produced in what interactions? Don’t try to map all bits and pieces of information. Instead, focus on core content (such as important resources, products, and stories that act as collaborative bridges between participants and interactions.
  • Which online and physical tools are being used to support the interactions? Don’t just look at the fancy “digital community tools”. A face-to-face meeting in a village center is also a tool, and a very powerful one at that!
  • What are the links between the interactions? One major issue caused by today’s communication overload is that we start to lose the context of our interactions. Don’t just map the interactions themselves, but also how they interconnect. For example, does the completion of one interaction cause another one to start? Should participants of one interaction at least be aware of the outputs of another interaction?
  • What are important quality aspects of the elements and connections mapped?  Think, for instance, of  aspects like priority, timeliness, legitimacy and acceptability that indicate how to interpret specific parts of your map. These quality aspects are important triggers for productive sense-making conversations following the making of the map.

Tips & tricks to get started

  • Map making is expensive. Think carefully about in what level of detail you are going to model elements and connections, and when you need to update the map. Capturing less is more.  Try to follow natural reporting rhythms, instead of making the provision of mapping data an extra chore.
  • Reuse existing data (e.g. from spreadsheets or organizational documents) when making your map. However, don’t limited yourself to what data is ready at hand. Often, the most useful data is still in the heads of community members.
  • Maps are a means, not an end. The mapping process does not end when a version of the map has been produced, but only really starts then. Use (relevant parts of) the maps by referring to them in meetings, workshops, and online conversations. Share links to relevant parts in social media. In this way, continue to make sense with the community stakeholders.
  • Communities and social networks overlap. There is a continuum between the social networks and communities making up community networks. Social networks are about relationships,  interactions, and connections between people and act as a resource for knowledge sharing and problem solving. Communities refer to developing a shared identity around a theme and collectively learn and develop knowledge about it (see Team BE for a great explanation).  No communities can flourish without being embedded in multiple social networks. Vice versa, out of social networks, communities often naturally emerge. Don’t try to make artificial distinctions between the two types of collectives. Just keep looking for interesting “densifications” in the community network map, and leave the conceptual nitpicking to academics 🙂
  • Iterate, iterate, and re-iterateMapping is never done. It is never complete, nor ever completely accurate. That doesn’t matter. Community network mapping is about boosting participation, creating a sense of community and empowerment. It is much more about the process than about the artefact. Make the process work. Get people to smile, their eyes to sparkle, and their mouths to talk. That’s when you know your mapping work is taking off!

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