Are we talking about pipes or water?

A few days ago I was on the phone with a colleague who did a series of Net-Maps with groups of African farmers, asking them where they get their information about improving their farming practice. When we talked about the data she collected, we realized that what her farmers had mapped was like the pipe system (hopefully fresh water and not sewage…): What are all the potential connections that these farmers could use?  That’s an interesting questions. And as the mapping was done with groups of farmers, I am sure that a lot of them learned about information sources they were not aware of before and that drawing the maps together might have helped them to access more and more diverse information afterward. What they didn’t map though was where does the information actually flow; and who provides more fresh water (good, correct, new information) as compared to sewage (old, wrong, useless information) – though some of this information was shared in the discussion.

I’m not writing about this, because there is a right and a wrong approach to mapping out information networks. I think it is important to know about the (potential) connections as well as the flow. And depending on your underlying question and motivations, one might be more crucial than the other. But what is important is to be aware of what you are mapping, just like my friend was, otherwise it is so easy to misinterpret the answers and make up very bleak or overly optimistic stories about the connections that people  have access to or actually use.

Small town NetMapping: Can informal relationships be captured within institutional analysis? (guest post by Jody Harris)

My PhD research in Zambia is an evaluation of an NGO program that aims in part to align and coordinate certain activities within the Ministries of Agriculture and Health for improved nutrition outcomes (both food and health being essential elements of good nutritional status, of course!). A key piece of information, then, is how are different players in these sectors interacting right now, and how does that interaction change over the course of the project? Enter NetMap.

The key to the alignment strategy being used in this project is to start at District rather than National level, to create a model of coordination that can be used to advocate for scaling up to other areas or even other countries. Ministry staffing is minimal at District level, so I aimed to interview everybody employed in each District Ministry, from the Directors down to technical officers (around 5 people per ministry), and to snowball out from there to anyone else who came up in the interviews as crucial to the process.

This being the first time I had used NetMap, I was unsure how it would be received- how would people react to being asked to give up an hour or more of their day to draw pictures with an outsider? In anticipation of rejection, I made sure the process looked as professional as possible- putting together a regulation NetMap kit, sending formal letters of invitation to interviews, hiring a highly professional local assistant, and dressing as smartly as I possibly could in sweltering pre-rains temperatures. But the method held true, and just following the steps from actors to links to influence engaged everyone from the moment we started- as I had been promised it would!

Being on a smaller scale than much national-level research I have seen that uses social network analysis, I had wondered if I could use NetMap at the individual level; that is, could I map not only the formal interactions but also the informal interactions between individual players within each Ministry, since it is very likely that personal relationships shape collaboration, particularly in such a small population as in the district capital (a small, one-road town). One of my pre-defined links therefore was informal interactions, and my questions attempted to probe whether person X might have family ties to person Y, or whether person A drinks in the evenings with person B. But it turned out in pre-test that even small-town rural Zambia had too many players in this field for everyone to know everyone; people knew which organizations were doing what with nutrition, but not who was doing it, and the method defaulted pretty quickly back to looking at organizations rather than individuals. Still a very interesting picture, but I wonder if there might be something in this for my future research…

So, now I have a collection of beautifully colorful maps to process and a good idea of local views on the alignment of sectors for nutrition in rural Zambia, so watch this space…

Do you doodle?

Doodledidoo... (copyright by lourdieee on flickr)

Are you like me, when you try to explain something complicated (or exciting) to others, you quickly grab pen and paper and draw some weird picture or graph that makes absolute sense to you, helps you structure your thoughts and maybe (or not) helps the other person understand what you are trying to say?

The other day I realized that Net-Map is often just that, but taken to a higher level of general understanding and inviting others to co-doodle with you. By providing some basic steps to the doodling: first actors, then links, then motivations, then influence, Net-Map helps keeping the complex story on track and allows everyone to chip in and add their contribution.

As a facilitator some of my favorite Net-Map experiences (both with groups and individuals) were when the people I worked with just told their story like they would to a friend and I visualized this flow by writing the names they mentioned in the unfolding narrative on actor cards, sketching out the relations as they told me what happened. I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy Net-Mapping so much, because it can feel like you are just two people having a conversation – and not like being an interviewer who interviews someone or a person with a method which dominates the interaction (e.g. a closed ended questionnaire, where, every time the interview partner wants to tell you their view or experience, you have to say: “please just rate it on a scale from 1-5”. Or “possible answers are yes, no, don’t know”).

I guess that has something to do with respect: If I ask you to take some time out of your busy day to answer my questions, I want to show you I am really interested in your (own) answers and want to learn something I didn’t know before. I know that for a lot of quantitative analysis you need standardized questions and answers and it is great to be able to say something statistically significant about things… but I personally just prefer a situation where I can really connect with the other person and listen to what they have to say.

Shadow Elite

Interesting and scary book by Janine R. Wedel. The full title is: Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market. She looks at the revolving door through which a small number of powerful individuals move between jobs in government, as lobbyists and industry and back to government positions, blurring the lines between government and industries, public and private interest. Looking at some of her graphics, you can see that she conceptualizes the situation as a two-mode-network (though I’m not sure she uses the term…). A two mode network is a network where you have two kinds of nodes, one are actors and the other are something connected to the actors. Often it would be actors connected to events. In a two-mode-network you cannot have links within one mode, so actor to actor links or event to event links are not possible. The graphics in Shadow Elite connect the power brokers to the organizations they worked for and show quite stunningly how they move from one world to the next. While I am normally not a great fan of two-mode-networks, because they are far less intuitive than one-mode (or actor-to-actor) networks, I think in this case they work really well.

Listen to her introduction of Shadow Elites at the Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany: