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.