Facebook and twitter aren’t the only networks that matter in Arab Spring

Protester waving Egyptian flag on Tahrir Square (copyright Jonathan Rashad)

It’s amazing to see how widespread internet and cell phone access and web 0.2 tools have forever changed the way that social movements form and operate. I am sure we have only seen the very first glimpse of this and are far from understanding how it works. The term “infectious idea” gives us some guidance on how to think about this in network terms: The social mobilization spreads through the network like a (positive) infection. I can give an infection to many people at the same time – while still keeping it. That is different from other things that flow through a network, such as money for example.

The fact that this courage to stand up for freedom spreads like the common cold leads us to think a lot about the “masses”, huge, amorphous, leaderless groups of people with little individual power, who get together to topple long established regimes. It’s like standing back in awe, watching a force of nature.

But, while these movements have proven powerful in forcing the end of the old order (at least in some of the countries), will it be possible (or even desirable) to develop a new order by the leaderless means of facebook and twitter?

My humble prediction is that you will have to look offline as well as online to find the networks that will shape the future of these countries: Existing and emerging leaders of different groups (both pro- and anti-democracy) will play distinct roles in negotiating the future. They will draw some of their strength from their respective ability to infect the masses with their ideas. But the masses as such will not sit down at the negotiating table.

It would be fascinating to sit down with some people from the old establishment, the new movements and some long time observers in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen to ask: “Which individuals, organizations and groups will be most influential in shaping your country’s political future?” And get an in-depth picture of how they are linked in terms of administrative connections, personal friendships, conflict and the ability of putting political pressure on each other. Time would tell how far an offline network map today is able to predict the developments in the future.

Who is most powerful… and does it matter?

One pattern I have seen evolve in the past policy level Net-Map exercises is that it is not so much about the one most powerful actor but a group of maybe 3-6 very powerful actors who all fill different roles and just like pillars of a house, you can’t remove one and still have a stable structure. So one thing we do with Net-Map is understand who this group of most powerful actors are, what the distinct roles are that need to be fulfilled for this system to work well, how the powerful actors fill these roles and which specific issues concern these specific roles. When you ask individuals however, most of them focus just on one role, their assessment of the power dynamics being something like: “Money rules.” Or “This is all run by the most senior in the formal hierarchy.” Or “This is all about informal influence and friendship” By bringing these perspectives together and exploring the different roles that make actors influential in the network we see that all of these statements are true to a certain degree. But that the most realistic picture is accepting that one actor might be powerful because of money while the other one gets his or her influence from the friendship or family relation of a powerful actor.

The Network of Europe’s E. Coli (EHEC) Crisis

Does this look like a killer? (picture by yogendra174 on flickr)

Network analysis is great for getting some clarity and a sense of direction in complex, messy, multi-actor situations, and I guess that is a pretty good description of the situation in Europe’s E. Coli outbreak (just how messy? These CNN and Newsweek articles give some insight). It’s a multi-actor situation, the actors involved include different government departments (e.g. for health, agriculture, trade) of different countries (Germany, where the outbreak happened, other countries that may or may not have produced the vegetable responsible) and at the EU level, everyone in the supply chain, from farmers to traders and food businesses to consumers, research organizations, media outlets etc.

But what makes this really messy, is the fact that these actors are linked by very different kinds of connections. There are the material flows of produce (infected or not) from farm to table. There is the movement of the infection through the system, with the bacteria sometimes connected to the produce, but now, further into the outbreak, more likely a person-to-person connection. As if this wasn’t complex and obtuse enough, the way that countries and the EU as a whole deal with this issue is structured by the administrative networks and hierarchies. And because multiple departments or ministries in multiple countries are involved, this is not just one hierarchical pyramid, where the person in the top position can decide what to do, but a number of (internally hierarchical) organizations, which are linked to each other by non-hierarchical links and somehow have to figure out how to collaborate quickly and effectively once new information becomes apparent.

And this leads us to the fourth kind of link we need to look at, to understand how this outbreak works and that is the information link: Where is new knowledge about sources, spread, effects and treatments produced and how does this knowledge reach those who matter, who tells decision-makers what they need to know to make good decisions, who informs (and doesn’t mis-inform) the media, where does the general public get their information?

Now imagine you sat down with a group of researchers, government and farmer representatives to map out the actors, how the produce flows between them, how the infection has spread so far, how they are connected in terms of hierarchy and coordination and where the information flows through the system. The resulting map might be so big and messy that it first blows your mind. But (even without mapping it) that is the reality that the decision makers on the ground have to deal with; under time pressure and with high stakes.

And as we have seen when mapping out the response to bird flu outbreaks, just putting this map together can help those involve discover crucial oversights and structural problems in the system. In Ghana, we were able to point out how the structure of the compensation schemes created corruption hot spots at the border and where structural holes led to a risk of communication breakdowns.

However, when reading about the outbreak, certain network links are in the forefront of everyone’s attention: The big question everyone is asking is: How does the infection travel through the system (did it ride a cucumber or a bean sprout)? And while this is one crucial question, the questions that will have a greater long term impact are: How ready was the system to deal with the outbreak? How did information flow and how are interventions coordinated? Jack Ewing hints at that in a New York Times article, pointing out that the federal decentralized system of disease reporting led to a crucial delay in understanding the scope of the threat. But to increase readiness for the outbreak of any contagious disease (be it the swine flu or bird flu or a new strain of E. coli) it is crucial to improve the information and intervention systems along with discovering the source of a specific outbreak.

Net-Map Level 1 Certification Course (Washington, DC)

We offer Net-Map certification courses on 4 levels:

Level 1: Net-Map Facilitation

Level 2: Net-Map Qualitative and Visual Data Collection and Analysis

Level 3: Net-Map Quantitative Data Collection and Analysis

Level 4: Net-Map Mastery – Train the Trainer

Join us for a 2 day, Level 1 Net-Map class on the 4.-5. of August in Washington DC!

You will learn how to use this pen-and-paper method in meetings, individual interviews and to structure your own thinking process. It will improve your project planning, monitoring and evaluation, team work and strategic networking.

From years of Net-Mapping experience, I have distilled the most common prototypical influence network structures, which I will share with you. This will help you detect network problems, bottlenecks and opportunities while you are mapping the network so that you can immediately develop improved networking strategies. By mapping out your own case studies (challenges from your work experience), you will learn the method, develop a networking plan for a complex work related issue and improve your “network eyes”.

Because the most difficult questions normally come up once you are back to your own work, wanting to implement what you have learned, we have added a free 1 hour phone or skype consultation, redeemable within 6 months after the training, to the package.

No prior knowledge of social network analysis is needed. However, even SNA experts will learn a lot of new things in this training.

Sign up!

Is evaluation a cost or an investment?

Turn your evaluation into a catapult (picture by trebuchetstore.com)

The answer to this question basically depends on the attitudes of the people involved: you (as a project leader), your organization/leadership, the body requesting the evaluation and the external expert who helps you do it.

Your attitude: If your organization, project, unit evaluates just because somebody else (donors, board, supervisors) said so, you see evaluation as a necessary evil to get more funding in the future, you collect data to fill in required forms and you make sure to be seen in the best possible light, if the people who require the evaluation punish you for admiting mistakes and obsess about their forms being filled in properly… well, evaluation will not only be a pain and an annoying and scary exercise where people bend the truth as far as they can get away with, it will also be a cost. Or shall I go so far as to say: a waste of money? Well, you might get some benefit out of it, for example the future funding you were after, but you will loose out on the opportunity of learning and improving based on experience and analysis.

If, on the other hand, you can develop the common understanding that the struggles your project went through are learning opportunities, that everyone involved has something to offer to understand what happened in the past and how to do things even better in the future, if the people who request the evaluation require measureable outcomes, but also know that obstacles overcome make you stronger and that you sometimes need to change your direction in the middle of a project (because of changes in the world or learning processes within the project), then your evaluation will be an investment, it will be an amazing and empowering learning experience for everyone involved and catapult your work to the next level in the future.

If your organization sees evaluation as a cost, you might not want to call me just yet, because my tools and approaches won’t work for you. If, however, you want to turn your evaluation into an investment for your future and a transformative learning experience for everyone involved (while still collecting data about your performance), we should talk.