On the Research Road: Meshing Physical & Online Community Mapping

On the research road…

In the spring, I decided to go on a “research road trip” to Silicon Valley and Northern California. The overarching research theme of my road trip was to engage in some deep learning and sharing on my main current R&D focus: community mapping. I was going to visit and stay over at friends and colleagues doing great related work in their “natural habitat”. Some of them I had not seen in years, or even only met online: Jack Park, Eugene Kim, Nancy White, Jeff Conklin, Jeff Mohr, Howard Rheingold, Bev Trayner, Etienne Wenger, and Marc Smith, it’s been so good to meet (again)!

Of course, a road trip is nothing without a car, although fortunately the Bay Area does at least have some decent public transportation when travelling within the metropolitan area. The car also afforded me to visit some of the stunning natural sights dotting the northern part of this great state, including magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore and South Yuba River, as well as the mesmerizing shorelines of Big Sur and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Interspersing meaningful and intense personal visits with days of regenerative solitude in nature turned out to be a strong stimulus of my “Deep Thinking processes”, very much in line with my “thinking communities” philosophy.

To get some idea of the spirit of the research road trip, watch this video  shot by my long-time friend and colleague Eugene Kim while I was visiting him in San Francisco:

The Berkeley meetup

One of the spin-offs of my journey was that Eugene invited me to give a talk at The Collective Spark in Berkeley. Hosted by Will Tam and Adene Sacks, it turned out to be a wonderful venue, atmosphere and bunch of most interesting and bright participants. We were received with drinks & snacks, allowing for people to meet and mingle extensively prior to the talk. After the talk, there were drinks again, so people could continue their animated conversations.

The WHAT of my talk was about participatory community mapping. It included examples from my R&D around the budding Tilburg urban farming community and other cases: using online network visualization tool Kumu to support the collective sensemaking of what the community is about and how to discover opportunities for community growth and innovation. See the slides:

Meshing physical and online community mapping

The novel part of the meetup for me was not so much the WHAT but the HOW. Over dinner the night prior to the meetup, Eugene and I were musing about how we could let the audience grasp the essence of community mapping more interactively than just by giving yet another standard presentation. We decided to create our very own “Instant Meetup Community Map”, taking advantage of the the Meet & Mingle-Introduction stage of this specfic meetup format.

We therefore asked the participants to not just have nice chats with various people before the start of the talk, but also tag each other with relevant topics that emerged during their conversations. This was to be done – very low tech – by putting sticky labels on each others’ sleeves.

As I was concentrating on getting to know the participants and preparing for the talk, Eugene acted as the community mapping facilitator. While everybody was still chatting away, he entered the participants and their associated topics in a simple Google Sheet. Kumu allows for maps to be generated automatically from such spreadsheets , so the emergent map could be visualized on-the-fly.

160905_Berkeley meetup community map

Just before my I started my presentation, we all had a look at the completed map together, with Eugene guiding our group discussion on what the patterns we distinguished might mean. The grey nodes indicated participants, and the orange ones topics. From the map overview, it’s easy to see how dispersed the interests of the group members were, yet there were a few common starting points, such as the topic of “consultant“.  Still, the very fact that all participants were physically there to immediately tell stories about their more exotic topic assignments, provided lots of food for conversation.

It was a fun and inspiring exercise, resulting in both an aha experience of the power of community mapping and a nascent bonding between the participants, who were discovering surprising things they had – or did not have – in common. This lived experience must surely have made the participants more receptive to and understanding of the more general community mapping principles I was explaining subsequently in my talk.

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To be continued

Although we did not have the opportunity to follow-up on this exercise with this particular group, it has wetted our appetite to explore how the meshing of physical and online community mapping processes could help build, innovate, and link communities. For example, what if we could fine-tune such practical community mapping process meshes and apply them to boosting the various life cycle stages of communities of practice?  What if we could use such tailored exercises to scaling up  social innovation initiatives from the bottom-up? Such community mapping practices could also be a instrument to help explore some of the main research themes and questions in the domain of communities & technologies and community informatics. Surely to be continued in future posts…

Collaboration Patterns for Social Innovation: The Dutch – US Connection?

As part of my visit to the  University of Alabama in Huntsville I gave a presentation “Creativity Meets Rationale – Collaboration Patterns for Social Innovation” at the College of Business Administration. It was based on the book chapter with the same title that was published earlier this year in the book “Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience by Design”. The slides can be downloaded here.

From the discussion, it seemed that Europe is ahead in implementing scaled applications of social innovation,  although the US is catching up and making it a national priority as well, as indicated by the White House having created an Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.  See also the Economist article Let’s Hear Those Ideas. It would be interesting to see to what extent collaboration patterns for social innovation are alike and differ in the US and European contexts. As Huntsville has an incredible wealth of high-tech engineering knowledge seeking new applications, it would be a very worthwhile exercise to build and compare libraries of collaboration patterns in the Dutch Noord-Brabant and US Alabama cases. A common theme to investigate could be civil aerospace applications, for instance.

Mr. Community President

[The text of an e-mail I just sent to the Community Informatics Researchers-mailing list]

What a wonderful moment in  emancipatory history we have just experienced! No need to add here to the deluge of analyses of the profound impact Obama’s election is going to have on all levels of U.S. and global society. At any rate, congratulations to all American and international colleagues on this list who are so very much in need of a change of societal paradigm.

One thing some of us discussed at the conference in Prato (another great event in the series, it was, as always, good to be back) was what Obama’s election could mean in terms of boosting community informatics research and practice.  His is very much a way of community (informatics) thinking and working, both in philosophical outlook by putting community first and in practical approach, see, for instance:

http://fairsay.com/blog/obamas-win-and-the-power-of-networking

In particular, community informatics researchers and practitioners have a great wealth of experience, contacts, and lessons learnt at their disposal which could become much more visible and widely applicable now that new winds are going to blow. In particular, if Obama is going to live up to at least part of the sky-high expectations, our community (through its conferences, CIRN, individual contacts, projects, etc.) might be of use for him and his team in order not to waste precious time and seize this unique moment to make the paradigm shift lasting.

We were wondering if anybody would have any idea how we as a community of social change catalysts could practically link up with the now permanent campaign for social change forming around the Obama nucleus? This could – and should – be our moment too, but we have to get our act together…

Aldo