Interactive Net-Mapping Online?

Could people all over the world sit in front of their internet and net-map together?

Today I discussed with Simone Staiger of the International Center of Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), how they could include a net-map exercise into their web-based knowledge sharing workshop. They have an online-phase, where participants from all over the world will be online together and could interact around drawing maps. The question is: How do you best do that without loosing the visual freshness of a map drawn together?

Well, I’m still a strong believer in pen and paper and think that building physical influence towers translates their meaning much more directly than anything you can do on a 2 dimensional computer screen.

But on the other hand I’m also intrigued by the possibilities that new media offer and my first idea was to combine the program Visualyzer, that I use for drawing and analyzing networks with an application called GoToMeeting.

With GoToMeeting you can link up to other people’s computers and you can transmit sound (as in skype), show your surroundings (via web-cam) and allow them to look at your computer screen.

I mostly use Visualyzer as a second step for entering and analyzing my data that I collected on paper. For that, you enter the data in matrices and import it into the program. However, there is the option of directly drawing networks on the screen, adding nodes by double-clicking on the white background, entering names, attributes and links etc. as you go.

So via GoToMeeting, everyone looks at the facilitators screen, the participants discuss who is involved, how they are linked and how influential they are via skype and the facilitator draws the network as the discussion flows. Instead of building influence towers, you can add the influence values as attributes of the nodes and set the node size according to this attribute in the end. The more influential the actor the bigger the dot representing this actor.

I’m excited about this idea and very curious how far the group learning experience that I have observed in my old-fashioned pen-and-paper-seminars can be transmitted via the technical media.


The issue of the day is combination. Discussing Net-Map as a research approach with colleagues both here and over in Germany, I got a number of responses that had to do with combining the social network analysis with other research approaches.

The underlying thought is that our social interactions are embedded in other factors that both influence the interaction and the outcome of it. This could be the spatial distance between actors, the environmental flows within the natural environment the actors work and play in, the rules and values of the society they work in, external shocks such as droughts, political instability or price shocks. How can we combine tools like Net-Map with tools that analyze these underlying factors? Does it make sense to try and develop many-dimensional ueber-tools that combine all this or is it more appropriate to collect separate indicators and allow for a more detailed representation? These are open questions and I am looking forward to inspiring thoughts from experts in the respective fields.

The other possible combination of research methods is much more straightforward: If you want to know, how social networks impact on people’s ability to achieve their goals, you will have to collect data about the goals achievement, so that in the end you can tell whether the network structure and position of the actors in the network has an impact on their ability to increase their crop yields, find a new job or attract funding for community projects.

Dare to inspire!

You know how sometimes someone says something to you in passing and much later you realize that this comment rooted itself into your thoughts and over time, grew into something?

Years ago I talked with Gerd Ramm, who works with the German consultancy firm Como Consulting, and does a lot of work to promote organizational development of projects in developing countries. He told me that when he was younger the way he conducted workshops was to always try to make it a round thing, finish things nicely and neatly before everyone left.

Then, one day he realized that he learned much more from those events that weren’t as neat as that. When he went away from a workshop and felt that there were still open ends, un-answered questions, remaining tensions, he would take these issues with him after the workshop and they would continue to bother him, make him think and grow and wonder.

But he also said that it took a lot of courage on the side of the facilitator to conduct open-ended workshops, because you give up some control, you start a process, set things in motion and just allow them to happen after you have left the situation. And you have to be prepared to endure possible tense feelings from some participants who expected that you would send them home with a nicely tied up box of issues, all sorted out for them.

However, the potential benefits are tremendous because you might inspire changes that go far beyond your own scope and imagination. Letting go of some of the control is also about taking your participants seriously and trusting them to take whatever they take away from this workshop and turn it into something good.

When we recorded an interview for a pod-cast about Net-Map (soon to be found here), this thought came back to me and I started realizing that Net-Map might be a very suitable tool for conducting open-ended workshops, as participants don’t tend to agree easily on actors, networks and influence of actors and some of the discussions might linger and follow them home. And there is never enough time and space to discuss each and every issue until it is (or the discussants are) exhausted. I want to further explore this line of thought and will try to find out more from people who have attended Net-Map workshops a while ago…

Reaching the poorest of the poor in Nigerian Agriculture

Today I had a heated Net-Map session with a group of Nigerian visitors to IFPRI, who are all involved in the Fadama II project (funded by World Bank), that aims at improving the lives of the poorest of the poor in Nigeria, living and farming in the low lying fadama flood-plains. My colleague Ephraim Nkonya invited me to introduce Net-Map to them.

He is part of a group of researchers at IFPRI who have conducted an evaluation of this project, that subsequently won the African Award for Excellence from the World Bank in September 2007. Now everyone is looking at phase III, and that is where Net-Map might be helpful.

One of the crucial – and most difficult – issues in projects like this, is the targeting: How can you make sure, that it is really the poorest of the poor who benefit, that money and assets don’t leak into the pockets of the elites, that project activities don’t solely focus on people that you could call the “middle-income-poor”?

“Who can influence, whether the project really impacts on the poorest of the poor?” was the leading question of today’s session. As the participants had been involved in the implementation of the project, they had a wealth of good and bad examples to share. What I found especially note-worthy is their ambiguity about the goals of actors. As we were looking at things from a rather high level perspective, a lot of the stumbling blocks were hidden in the big picture. In Ghana they claim that one monkey spoils all the monkeys. So, when I tried to find out which one of the institutional actors would be most prone to prevent pro-poor outcomes, the participants had to put this straight: All of the organizations involved follow pro-poor goals AND in all of these organizations you have good monkeys and bad monkeys.

What I have learned from this, is that it is crucial to choose the appropriate level of analysis. So if you are looking at a problem that seems like a power-play between different organizations, the bigger picture approach makes sense. Now if we want to understand how concrete Fadama implementation units can deal with the proponents who support or prevent benefits for the poor, we have to use a magnifying glass and go down to the level where the problem actually occurs.

Power Tools

“Family portraits” (see below) is only one of the many tools that the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) introduces on their internet portal: “Power Tools“. Brief and engaging descriptions of participatory approaches as diverse as Market Chain Workshops, Interactive Radio Drama or Community Trade-off Assessment.

Family portraits of Maasai

Last week I talked with Mario Herrero of the International Livestock Research Institute about research he did with Maasai families in Kenya. He and his colleagues were looking at the question how people who migrate with their cattle for long distances within and between countries cope with the challenges posed to them both by society and by changing natural conditions. When I lived in northern Ghana, where the pastoralists are a group called Fulani, we could see that they very often eluded our attention – even though they live in longstanding and complex relationships with the local sedentary farmers (e.g. herding their cattle for them), they seemed to rarely be involved in local policy making or participatory processes and when we conducted community meetings, they were never amongst the participants, because they don’t belong to the community the same way as sedentary farmers do. Honestly, they were so elusive that it took me a long time to even realize that they were missing from the picture.

Well, the work that Mario and his colleagues did, consciously focused on the Maasai and he pointed this work out to me because of the method they employed, called family portraits . Another mapping technique, though much more qualitative and less pre-structured than the Net-Map approach.

The researchers on the ground, all of them local people, would stay with families for four days to map out the family ties and the ways families relate to the challenges posed to them by their environment. Their paper made me think about the time you need to find something out. One interesting observation they made is that their local facilitators did complain in the beginning, that this method was very time consuming. However, later they realized how strong the longer term benefits were, as their findings were well understood by community members and could be used to plan for better futures. As an inspiration for field research, I especially like the picture on p. 11 where a wide variety of locally available materials are used to map the family portrait on the ground.

German students analyse governance networks in Himalaya-Hindukusch-Pamir Region

In a new collaboration between InWent (Capacity Building International, Germany), teamconsult (Company for Project Management and Organisational Development, Germany) and IFPRI, we will train and support German students to use Net-Map to understand the complex formal and informal networks of mountain governance in the Himalaya-Hindukusch-Pamir Region.

This is part of the ASA student exchange program organized by InWent. The students will work in close collaboration with policy makers from Nepal, Tadschikistan, China-Tibet and China-Xinjiang, who participate in InWent’s Program “Planning and Management for Sustainable Regional Development of Mountain Regions”. The participants from Asia are living and learning in the European Alps Region for one year to develop their expertise in sustainable mountain governance.

I’m excited because this will be the first use of Net-Map in Asia. In their first preparatory meeting the students will pre-test the method with our guests from the Himalaya Region. They will ask concrete (but hypothetic) questions such as: “Imagine a road was to be planned, cutting through this protected area, who would be the different actors who could influence the decision making process?” and draw a Net-Map together with a group of participants from the country to which they will be posted.

So the student who is going to go to Nepal will start to understand some of the intricacies of Nepalese political processes by discussing them with local policy makers. Also, we hope that the participants get to know each other through this exercise and it will be easier for the students to arrive in the foreign country and start building their research network, if they have an entry point. As this is the first time we use Net-Map in this cultural setting, the workshop in March will give us invaluable insights into the cultural applicability of the method and help us to adapt it for this specific use.