Net-Map Video

What a great job they did! My colleagues at the IFPRI communications division are amazing.

With all my other traveling, I unfortunately couldn’t attend the Annual General Meeting of the CGIAR in Maputo to receive the “CGIAR 2008 Promising Young Scientist Award” in person. So while I was hidden away somewhere in the Ethiopian hinterland, out of contact with the rest of the world for most of the time, my colleagues took whatever coverage of my work they had on their files an made this brief video about Net-Map and its uses in the field.

Thank you so much, to (in alphabetical order):

Evelyn Banda: Script

Stevon-Christophe Burrell: Post Production and Voice Over

Shirong Gao: Graphic Design

Michael Go: Script and Video

Klaus von Grebmer: Video

On the benefits of strange participants

Simon Hearn comments quite rightly that difficult participants can sometimes be very helpful for the whole group. That reminds me of a group of government and NGO staff that I once led through drawing a common Net-Map of their governance impacts.

There was one guy who had a knack for misunderstanding everything and being very vocal about his views of the governance network. He was enthusiastic about the whole process and didn’t seem to mind that his comments basically only led the rest of the group to explain in detail why he was mistaken. This happened in a very friendly way and helped the whole group to be very clear about the concepts they used and what they meant with the different links.

I believe there are two lessons in this:

1. Sometimes the thing you perceive as distraction is actually beneficial for the whole process.

2. Trust in your participants: Encourage them as a group to take as much responsibility of the process and outcome as possible.

Joachim von Braun (Director General of IFPRI) about Net-Map

“This is such a simple way for us to understand and anticipate what can be very confusing and complicated interactions in the agriculture sector. It’s so effective that we are now seeing it adopted far beyond our area of work. Net-Map is being used as a way to improve communications related to the risks of avian influenza in Asia and Africa and to understand political pressures on the legislative process in Chile.”

Facilitation would be so easy, if it wasn’t for the participants…

If I could choose between a day spent with my computer and a day spent facilitating a loud group of disagreeing Nigerians, I’d always choose the Nigerians. There are some people who get their kick out of solving complicated things alone in front of their computer, but I’m definitely not one of them…

Yesterday I talked with my colleague Noora Aberman, who has a similar personality and we both agreed about how much energy we get out of working with people. Yes, but… what do you do, if you just don’t get a room full of people to become one group, what if your attempt of drawing a network map together is continuously hijacked by one or two people who seem to just enjoy to disagree?

What do YOU do?

One thing that happens quite easily in this situation, is that the result is somewhere in the middle between the group perception and the perception of this one person – which means that the consensus (that the group agrees on for the sake of peace) is far away from the general perception and one loud voice is strongly over-represented.

How do you deal with your own feeling (of being annoyed and under pressure to produce results in limited time), the group mood (Desire for satisfying and peaceful interactions? Or enjoying a good fight?) and the individual needs of the loud and the quiet participants constructively?

Using Networks to tell a story

In the past weeks I have been traveling and teaching and learning more than reflecting and writing. Now back home in Washington DC, I am unpacking my bags and letting all this experience in Bolivia, Kenya, India and Ethiopia settle, to see what the neat and nice bloggable lessons are that I can draw from this.

Especially when teaching Net-Map to consultants in Bolivia (for the Inter-American Development Bank) and giving a general Social Network Analysis course to researchers of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, we had a lot of discussions about: What do you do with your results?

There are rather qualitative and rather quantitative ways of using network data and one thing that I observe in my reading is that a lot of the research oriented social network analysis has a strong leaning towards the quantitative approaches of calculating centralities, network properties etc. Which, I admit, is one of the coolest things about SNA.

However, in a lot of the ad-hoc, pragmatic and barefoot applications of SNA tools in the field of development, most of the conditions for a clean quantitative analysis are not given, you deal with incomplete samples, actors of different kind (individuals, organisations, functional groups) and multiplex formal and informal relationships that you want to understand in the specific social and cultural context. So purely quantitative analysis might be too much (methodological overkill) and too little (reducing the depth of understanding to pure figures) at the same time.

What if you would use your network map as an illustration for understanding and telling a coherent story? If you look at this network of information flow in the Ghanaian agricultural system for example; the question was: How does the information about a suspected outbreak of avian influenza move from the place where the chicken dies to the national level authorities?

slide0002_image002The story I want to tell with this map is the following: If there is an outbreak on a small farm (black dot on the bottom of the right cluster), there is a lot of communication on the local level. However, just one actor (animal health technician) carries all the burden of bridging the gap between the local level and higher levels (district, region, national). So the red arrow indicates a potential break point of the communication chain and warns everyone involved to support this link as good as they can.

And because I want to tell this specific story, give this specific warning, I have not chosen the (quantitatively generated) spring embedding layout, that puts actors with most links in the middle, but have manually dragged the actor-dots around a bit, to make the precarious bridge more obvious.

A thinking aid, not a thinking replacement

Inspired by Joerg Volkmann’s comment about the similarities between Net-Map and Vester’s Sensitivity Model, I had a look around, started reading about it and was impressed. Vester’s approach is more about how different issues lead to to each other in a complex system (and not so much actor links, power and goals) but I will definitely have a look into the ways that both can complement each other. And I really love the statement that I have taken as a heading for this post, an answer to the question what tools like this can and cannot do.

Jennifer Hauck writes: Networks in everyday life

A very good example that science does not always have to be rather boring is provided by Linton C. Freeman. The author (who wrote an excellent overview of “The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science in 2004) assembles 24 comics that focus on networks. Right-click here and save a pdf-file with some figures that may help to understand intuitively, what some network scientists like to pack into complicated, never ending sentences and papers.

Have fun!