In this tribute to Michael Gurstein, we first summarize three of his key concepts: Community Informatics, Effective Use, and Community Innovation. We then apply his ideas to a case on participatory collaboration mapping in Malawi. We end the tribute with a reflection and re-iterating Mike’s call for Community Informatics research and action to keep meeting.
Last week, I gave a presentation at the 12th edition of the PechaKucha Tilburg event. PechaKucha is a lively presentation format in which anybody can share an idea(l), project or passion close to their heart. The challenge is that this has to take place in 20 slides of 20 seconds each, so you really need to be very focused in telling your story in exactly (and only…) 6 minutes and 40 seconds! As the photos attest, the event taking place in the Tilburg theatre De Nieuwe Vorst was packed and the atmosphere was vibrant.
In my presentation, I talk about the need for new ways to look at and address the multitude of “wicked problems” such as climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, and migration that humanity has to deal with. I introduce my CommunitySensor methodology for participatory community network mapping and show how it has been applied, together with network visualization tool Kumu to strengthen agricultural collaborations in Malawi, as described in more detail in this post.
Addressing societal wicked problems requires collaboration across many different community networks. In order for community networks to scale up their collaboration and increase their collective impact, they require a process of inter-communal sensemaking. One way to catalyze that process is by participatory collaboration mapping. In earlier work, we presented the CommunitySensor methodology for participatory mapping and sensemaking within communities. In this article, we extend this approach by introducing a community network ontology that can be used to define a customized mapping language to make sense across communities. We explore what ontologies are and how our community network ontology is developed using a participatory ontology evolution approach. We present the community network conceptual model at the heart of the ontology. We show how it classifies element and connection types derived from an analysis of 17 participatory mapping cases, and how this classification can be used in characterizing and tailoring the mapping language required by a specific community network. To illustrate the application of the community network ontology in practice, we apply it to a case of participatory collaboration mapping for global and national agricultural field building. We end the article with a discussion and conclusions.
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.
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.
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-iterate. Mapping 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!
We live in an age of confusion, stagnation, and crisis. What we need is not more of the same top down, neo-liberal corporate and government interventions. These are just a recipes for ever more socio-economic and cultural alienation, disillusion and disempowerment. Instead, we should tap into the growing bottom-up and middle-out capacity around the world for civic intelligence: the collective, citizen-driven, (where possible institutionally supported) capability to think and work together. As Doug Schuler says:
Civic intelligence describes what happens when people work together to address problems efficiently and equitably. It’s a wide-ranging concept that shows how positive change happens. It can be applied anywhere – from the local to the global – and could take many forms.
Civic intelligence, properly taking root in the real world out there, is a necessary condition for any progressive movement-with-impact to build. A movement that is powerful, effective, and agile. A movement that scales, not in the sense of it being a monolithic mob, but consisting of a multitude of communities, each with their own identity, but in federation having real impact. A movement that consists of countless, interwoven webs of meaningful relationships and interactions, allowing groups of citizens to both grow and interconnect strong local communities, communities of interest and of practice.
However, these communities should not become inward looking, just minding their own business. They need to actively build mutual connections across their boundaries, so that true community networks emerge. Together, these networks of communities can form a strong, resilient societal fabric capable of much better dealing with the numerous challenges being thrown at them than each community on its own.
To literally rebuild society, identifying and strengthening the linking pins between communities is of the essence. Such linking pins can be social bridges(e.g. people who are active in various communities), technical bridges (e.g. features like social media notifications that alert you to interesting conversations happening in other communities) and conceptual bridges(e.g. tags that help identify meaningful connections between content on the Web). It is exactly for identifying such (potential) linking pins that community network bridge-building processes like knowledge weaving and participatory community network mapping can be so powerful. Take, for example, the case of building conceptual and social bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world by – in a facilitated participatory process – first mapping the projects represented by INGENAES global conference participants and then defining joint “seed actions” for follow-up.
However, in polarized times, we need to be aware that there is not just a movement driven by emancipatory civic intelligence. There is a counter-movement as well, also consisting of complex networks of communities. A counter-movement woven from that same fabric of interpersonal ties and bonds, albeit it motivated by fundamentally different and often opposing values, and in many cases fueled behind the scenes by powerful manipulating forces, such as well-funded “astroturf organizations”. The clash between these two movements is exemplified by the animosity and heated debates about basically everything in the present day US, and elsewhere in the world.
Instead of confronting these powers that be head-on, it is exactly by zooming in on that microscopic level of the neighbors and peers that building bridges, joint healing, and effecting change may begin, “one connection at the time”. However, that is only a necessary condition. The more abstract, but equally important mission of how to link and scale these numerous communities into something that displays emergent properties of collective intelligence is still in its infancy, both in theory and practice.
I am not naive. I know there is an inner core, and not a small one, in that ultra-conservative counter-movement that is too set in its beliefs and ways to be changed by civic engagement. However, by finding socially inclusive ways for “liberating voices” across the chasm, creating small-scale working examples of socially inclusive change with reasonable members from the counter-movement’s outer sphere, then forging smart alliances, and alliances of alliances, the fight to (re)build a more civic & civil society will gain momentum again.
How to do that is still very much an open question, but a challenge we cannot ignore. As JFK said:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Who says we can’t set ourselves the same mission impossible to reach a more civic Earth in a decade…
Tilburg is at the heart of a region in the southern Netherlands which has traditionally been very socially innovative. This tradition is celebrated annually during the European Social Innovation Week, recently renamed to the Dear Future week.
The project especially focuses on Tilburg residents. By using the typeface, they connect with the city and each other. Still, its use is not restricted to Tilburgers alone. Also, people outside of the city can download TilburgsAns and apply it, creating a virtual bond with Tilburg. For the initiators, TilburgsAns is not about city marketing or city branding, but it is an innovative art project with the aim of uniting people through (visual) language. Furthermore, TilburgsAns makes visible – in an innovative way – the material and immaterial heritage of the city via its icons.
This immediately piqued my interest. As you know, I am an ardent believer in the power of visualization and mapping to build, strengthen, and link communities. Furthermore, I have been a long-time resident of Tilburg, a city I have come – like so many other non-natives – to appreciate over the years as a hotbed of cultural and social innovation. It is not so much a remarkable city architecture-wise. What makes it such a pleasure to live here are the interesting and compassionate people and the multitude of inspiring initiatives they organize.
In my CommunitySensor mapping methodology, icons play a crucial role. They are at the core of the visual language, I use to map the linkages and collaborations taking place in community networks. However, for sensemaking between communities, we need standard icons. For example, in the map below of a community network mapping project in Malawi we see how standard icons act as “conceptual bridges” between two projects, outlining how they have activities, stakeholders, and resources in common.
What interested me so much about the TilburgsAns icon set, is that they are the opposite of standardized icons. Each of the icons is unique, capturing part of that distinctive “sense of Tilburg community”. Together, they define the essence of the city, its people, initiatives and events, sites & sights, and language.
This contrast between both icons sets and their uses – making connections across communities versus communicating the identity of a city – really got my mind racing. Perhaps, effective community network mapping needs a mix of both: (1) unique community icons to visualize what the community is about, strengthen bonds and ties between community members, and clarify its essence to the outside world – and (2) standardized community mapping icons to catalyze inter-communal sensemaking, collaboration, and “knowledge weaving for social innovation”.
The Tilburg Legend(s) map
Lots of food for thought, here, but instead of going off on an academic tangent, I decided to do something practical to get a better sense of the “deep meaning” of TilburgsAns, and to make a contribution to the Tilburg commons myself, building on the magnificent work of Sander and Ivo. Instead of just seeing the list of Tilburg icons, why not – literally – put them on the map?
To this purpose, I created two Google maps, the English Tilburg Legend(s) map and the Dutch Tilburgse Iconen, playing with the notions of legends defining Tilburg both story and icon-wise.
On each map, the relevant icons from the TilburgsAns list have been ordered in the categories People, Initiatives & Events, and Sites & Sights. Only the TilburgsAns word-icons without a clear geographical reference have been left out. By hovering over an item in the table of contents on the left hand side, you can see where it is situated on the map. By clicking a table of contents entry or an icon on the map, a brief description is shown, copied from the TilburgsAns entry. For example, when clicking the icon of Peerke Donders – one of the iconic “sons of the city” – the following description is shown:
When next clicking the link within the description, one is taken to the actual TilburgsAns page for that description, which – besides that text – also shows the full-size icon, plus links to further information:
Like so many things in social innovation, this mapping experiment is only a work-in-progress. The map is far from complete, and comes with many technical limitations, for instance, Google Maps only showing small icons or rather crude descriptions. Still, it has many potential applications, for example in providing a different, off-the-beaten-track view on the city to new residents and visitors.
The experiment also shows how one social innovation may lead to another, in often unexpected ways. Together, these social innovations form a web of catalysts for social change, strengthening our precious common good. In desperate times of societal polarization, alienation, and fragmentation, it is such initiatives that are potent symbols of that there is still much worth preserving and fighting for together.
Participatory community network mapping can support collaborative sensemaking within and across communities and their surrounding stakeholder networks. We introduce the CommunitySensor methodology under construction. After summarizing earlier work, we show how the methodology uses a cyclical approach by adopting a Community Network Development Cycle that embeds a Community Network Sensemaking Cycle. We list some observations from practice about using community network mapping for making inter-communal sense. We discuss how extending the methodology with a pattern-driven approach benefits the building of bridges across networked communities, as well as the sharing of generalized lessons learnt. To this purpose, a community collaboration pattern language is essential. We show initial work in developing and using such a language by examining the cross-case evolution of core community network interaction patterns.