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Playing with dandelions – the ups and downs of participatory network mapping

Kim Graham

Over the last few weeks, Kim has had their head deep in networks maps, and below reflects on the uses, and limits of such tools.

At Shared Assets, we often talk about our work helping make the invisible more visible, because land is one of those issues which underpins so much, yet is rarely talked about explicitly or systemically. In recent months, across the country, we’ve also seen the strength and relationships within communities become more visible in incredibly difficult circumstances, for example through the mutual aid networks which sprang up rapidly at the start of lockdown and connected people in new ways.

Being able to visualise and quickly explain to other people the way these often invisible or intangible systems and relationships work can be important, to better understand them or to secure a broader base of support so they can continue into the future. One way we’ve been helping with this in the last month or so has been by supporting the Empowering Places programme, helping them to map the relationships and power within their network of six ‘catalyst organisations’ and hundreds of local, regional and national partners.

In pre-COVID times, we probably would have done this work in person, with lots of markers, flipchart paper and sticky notes. To try and recreate the same participatory process remotely has meant using a combination of online meetings, a short survey, Google Sheets, and Kumu (a network mapping platform). The main aims for the Empowering Places partners were to understand:

  • What organisations they were connected to, at various geographical scales
  • What kind of relationships they held, and how strong they were
  • What degree of positive or negative influence did various organisations have over the catalyst organisations achieving their visions

The result, at a glance, was something like this:

Colourful network map - lots of lines and connections between dots
Dandelions? Octopus? Fireworks? You decide!

In brief, multiple levels of colour-coding and sizing indicate the answers to the questions posed above. For example – a large red dot would mean that an organisation has a perceived strong, negative influence over a particular catalyst achieving their goals under the programme, and a thin purple line means a weak funding relationship.

A pretty picture, no doubt – but where do we go from here? This question sparked a lot of discussion when we shared the map with the Empowering Places partners. Is it useful to add further detail into the data in the existing map? Should we add in many more organisations which aren’t currently connected to the partners, to see where the gaps are at a local level? Or is the best thing to do to look closely at the relationships as they stand, and decide which ones might need some more time and effort put into them? These debates will continue over the coming weeks as we finish tidying up the map, and are ultimately for the catalyst organisations to decide. At this stage though, I wanted to reflect on a few key ideas which have come up for me during this process, and which might be helpful to others thinking about embarking on something similar:

A map is only as detailed as the information which goes in

My role in this work was to try and make it as easy as possible to get all the complex relationships held by the catalyst organisations onto paper (or screen in this case). All the partners diligently wrote as many organisation names as they could think of in the survey, and then I converted these to a Google Sheet format which Kumu could understand, and where the partners could fill in more detail on the strength and influence of these relationships. I think we’ve made a good go of this together, but it’s not perfect. Finding ways to illustrate multiple types of relationship, and perceptions of influence by different catalysts of the same organisations proved challenging in Kumu. We also made the decision at the start to keep things at an organisational level, but it’s people which relationships are formed between, and I’m aware that converting rich, often long-standing relationships into numbers will always mean something is lost in translation. 

A map is only a snapshot

The map gives a subjective picture of the relationships and organisations at a moment in time. Whether it’s a new funding scheme being announced, or having a difficult phonecall with a partner, these perceptions can change rapidly. That’s fine, so long as it’s recognised, and the map can easily be updated to capture a new situation. More interesting trends might come from looking at a number of these ‘snapshots’ over time to see what has changed, for better or for worse, and might serve as a prompt to refocus energy and attention.

A map is only a tool

As hinted at above, an online network map will never be able to capture all the intricacies of personal relationships, and there has to be a careful balance between putting time into making diagrams which might be useful for strategising, versus actually doing the on the ground work of community organising and relationship building. The Shared Assets team already has a slightly geeky obsession with systems mapping and self-management, and in this remote-working era it’s been all too easy to get drawn in by shiny new online tools to help with these processes, and lose hours in trying to understand how to work them properly. Working with the Empowering Places team was a great learning opportunity for us, and hopefully also for the partners involved, to understand the capabilities of Kumu in showing them the power they hold, and ways this might be built upon, but it’s only the start of the process, as the follow-up questions above showed.

We’ve written before about our role as an infrastructure organisation, and in this work, I was trying to strike the right balance between involving the partners in the methods of network mapping enough so that they could confidently take the tools of the Kumu map and Google Sheet and run with them, but also not wasting their time with some of the more tedious and time-consuming aspects of the data cleaning and organising, so that they can focus on their vital work on the frontline. I hope I got this balance right, but it’s definitely a question I’ll continue to dwell on.

We have more participatory mapping work coming up in the next few months, namely working with Camden and Islington Councils and their constituents to understand how they could collectively use their parks better to improve people’s health. Excitingly, this project will include not only a chance to delve into and map local networks, but also to build community members’ capacity to develop new health-related initiatives in parks, so watch this space for further reflections.

If you are interested in doing participatory social network mapping in your area or for your relationships, you might want to check out this practical guide I drew on from the International Rescue Committee, or feel free to get in touch with us via research@sharedassets.org.uk, to see how we can help!

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