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.
This Southern African country has an agricultural governance system consisting of many layers of organizational structures between the national and the village levels. This can result in collaboration inefficiencies if not carefully coordinated. In a joint initiative by INGENAES (Integrating Gender and Nutrition within Agricultural Extension Services) and the Malawi-based SANE (Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension) sister project – both being implemented by the University of Illinois – a pilot was started to use participatory collaboration mapping to strengthen the District Agriculture Extension Services System (DAESS). This is the country’s decentralised extension framework for enabling agricultural stakeholders to enhance coordination and collaboration. Our aim was to engage in a participatory process of identifying and organising agricultural issues for collective action within and across the governance levels.
The pilot is being co-ordinated by the Malawi conference participants who had proposed this seed action. It started a few months after the INGENAES conference in 2017, and is still ongoing. Pilot activities so far have included:
defining a community network mapping language based on the community network ontology described here;
creating a seed map using this language to capture the essence of the Malawi agricultural collaboration and governance ecosystem;
training by CommunitySense of 10 Malawian agricultural extension professionals in the CommunitySensor methodology and Kumu tool;
two field visits applying the methodology to local agricultural communities;
a stakeholder sharing session with national Malawian agricultural organizations;
continuing to use and expand the mapping approach at the regional, district, and national levels.
Key to the Malawi implementation of our participatory collaboration mapping approach is that local agricultural communities are owners of their own maps. The mapping approach is being used by agricultural coordination platforms made up of diverse agricultural stakeholders (e.g., businesses, farmers, researchers, extensionists, etc.) who map initiatives within the communities where they work. As most villages do not have electrical power, posters are used to map several local initiatives at each session, thus spanning the digital divide. These initiative maps are then presented in turn to the overall session group by the community members. Symbolic connections between elements that the initiative maps have in common are made by connecting the posters with pieces of thread. The posters remain with the communities, since they are the owners of their own content.
The trained agricultural stakeholders take pictures of the posters, then add the posters to the online Kumu maps when back at their local office. During their next visit, they bring prints of the revised online maps, which can be discussed and further annotated, The Kumu tool then allows for individual online agricultural community maps to be aggregated into new views, so that interesting connections and patterns in the combined maps at the higher (area, district, and national levels) can be discovered. An example could be a certain stakeholder role prevalent in many local agricultural communities, thus that role could bridge community initiatives across villages, regions, and districts, spawning further sensemaking activities:
All of this may sound rather abstract. To show rather than tell about the essence of the mapping process – which are not the map artefacts but the PARTICIPATION process – below you find some photo impressions of how very much alive the various kickoff participatory mapping processes were. They capture the flow (and fun!) of participants mapping together in four subsequent steps: (1) training the agricultural extension officers in the capital Lilongwe; (2) the first mapping workshop with the Kalolo ASP (Area Stakeholder Panel) representatives, (3) the second mapping workshop with their peers of the Mbwadzulu ASP, and (4) a sneak preview of the subsequent scaling up the approach.
Before we continue, you should keep the following in mind: it is very easy to get lost in the cool tools and mesmerizing maps. However, the maps are not a goal in themselves. What matters is how they can help trigger processes of people coming together, better understanding one another, building trust and respect for them to engage in collective action that ultimately leads to lasting change for the common good, and an – at least – somewhat better world. The sense of energy, focus, fun and community that emanates from the below photo galleries, are exemplary of what community empowerment can be unleashed by making the invisible visible together…
So, join us on our Malawi mapping journey…
Step 1: Training the agricultural extension officers
The Malawi case is ongoing, and results are still being written up. However, we hope that – like in the INGENAES conference case – this succinct case description gives a flavor of the community empowerment participatory collaboration mapping can generate. This point is stressed by a quote from one of the district level representatives:
“DAESS mapping provides a remarkable opportunity through which districts and DAES may easily plan and monitor the performance of the system in relation to delivery of extension services. The more people are oriented and the sooner the approach is rolled out to other districts, the more DAESS will become a force/system to reckon in the councils and at national level.”
The Malawi mapping project was partially supported financially by USAID. Many thanks to SANE, the local pilot project team, in particular Stacia Nordin, the Lilongwe and Mangochi DAESS and the Kalolo and Mbwadzulu communities for their contributions and enthusiastic participation in helping to make this methodology their own, and sharing their stories. Pictures taken by Aggrey Mfune, Stacia Nordin and Aldo de Moor.