Community(Es)Sense

Last week, I attended the 2019 Communities & Technologies conference in Vienna:

The biennial Communities and Technologies (C&T) conference is the premier international forum for stimulating scholarly debate and disseminating research on the complex connections between communities – in their multiple forms – and information and communication technologies.

It is one of my favorite conferences, and as usual, it was an amazing meeting of minds. See the tweet stream for an impression of the topics discussed. More on the paper I presented in a future post.

After the conference, some of us took a tour of the futuristic new campus of  the Vienna University of Economics and Business. The buildings are phenomenal, however, what really struck me was how the concept of the campus being a community space has been designed into everything, from the overall master plan of the campus area to very specific building details. Instead of constructions creating artificial barriers between people, this campus in everything promotes the meeting and mingling of people and the building of community. There is a lesson or two to be learnt here by us working on community building with ICTs, where we often still let technology get in the way instead of acting as a community catalyst….

At any rate, a great symbol of where the worlds of physical architecture and online community spaces meet is this picture, where the three words I am pointing at neatly summarize what I am working on with CommunitySense. I am eager to further explore how the worlds of “traditional” urban planning & architecture and community informatics can mesh. Surely to be continued…

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PechaKucha presentation on “The Power of Communities”

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.

Click here to go to the presentation.

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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.

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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!

Building “networks of communities” for a civic intelligence movement with impact

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.

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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.

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Building  conceptual bridges across agricultural communities of practice around the world

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.

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Farrming community representatives making sense of their collaboration maps in Mbwadzulu, Malawi, September 2017.

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 Legend(s): what’s in an icon?

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 TilburgsAns open source typeface

At the conclusion of this week, the annual Social Innovation Awards are announced. This year’s Runner-Up Award was won by TilburgsAns, a unique initiative by Sander Neijnens and Ivo van Leeuwen, two local graphic designers who developed an open source “typeface for a sans serif city” of letters and icons. From the jury report:

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.

On icons

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.

CommunitySensor standardized community network mapping icons

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.

TilburgsAns unique city icons

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.

The Tilburg Legend(s) map

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:

The Google Maps description of the Peerke Donders icon

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:

The TIlburgsAns description of Peerke Donders showing both the enlarged icon and 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.

Tribute to Michael Gurstein – founding father of the Community Informatics Field

On October 8th, Michael Gurstein – founding father of the field of Community Informatics – sadly passed away.

I first met Mike when I stumbled into the wrong” workshop room at the first Communities and Technologies conference in Amsterdam in 2003, the workshop being chaired by Mike. This was the first time I learned about Community Informatics as a field, and I immediately knew I had “come home”.

Mike and I have been good friends and colleagues ever since, bumping into each other regularly at conferences and events, and, of course, having had countless interactions online. Mike has always been a great source of inspiration, a mentor, and role model to me, and has played an important part in mentally preparing me for setting up and defining the mission and approach of my own research consultancy CommunitySense.

Mike, we all owe so much to your being the founding father of our now thriving field of Community Informatics. Your contributions have been numerous: your vision and passion about the field; your deep insight that it is not the technologies per se, but how they are being put to effective use that truly empowers communities; your heartfelt conviction that Community Informatics researchers and practitioners strongly depend on one another to achieve that goal; your tireless efforts, from lobbying at the highest international political levels to guiding young researchers and practitioners asking for your advice; and, of course, establishing The Journal of Community Informatics and the Community Informatics Researchers mailing list as crucial fora for the field to develop.

Mike, you are now no longer with us physically, but – in the spirit of the field you helped create – will always remain a virtual member of the Community Informatics community, continue to inspire us and be present as we continue to develop our collective work “from ideals to impact”.

Mike in a characteristic pose at the Communities and Technologies Future Vision Workshop in Siegen, Germany, in 2014.