Mapping at the Big Society Network Open Night

One experiment we tried at the recent Big Society Network Open Night was asking anyone who wanted to lead a discussion to step to the front, pitch, form a group, chat, report back.
Silence? Chaos? Conflict? No, it just worked as you can see from the videos. Well, I was pretty sure it would, because Steve Moore facilitates open space events very well, with light touch/high enthusiasm. So not really that much of an experiment.
However, another thing we tried was asking people to fill in a short questionnnaire about who they worked with, and where they thought their strengths lay in terms of skills, resources, and willingness to share.
My colleague Drew Mackie has been using this technique extensive in local projects, and it is particularly useful if you want to do some network weaving to improve connections, and to figure out the potential for doing More with More by releasing resources in the social fabric … breaking down bureaucratic barriers, merging silos etc.
About 40 of the 150 plus people present filled in the questionnaire. We explained that the input data would be confidential, but that we would map the results as an illustration. You can see the result here – click to expand.

Download pdf of map
Download questionnaire

Big thanks to Sue Johnson and Mary Richardson for hosting the event at Communities and Local Government, and to Mary for initial questionnaire analysis. Drew turned the data into the map using the Yed mapping software.

Despite assurances of confidentiality, the exercise didn’t go down well with everyone (see Jamie’s post here), and on reflection we would modify the approach. But, hey, it was an experiment … and did show some connecting hubs, and quite a few groups or individuals that were isolated. We have only shown connections, not skills, resources, or openness.

We are now thinking about how to extend the mapping to get a clearer picture of who’s who in the field. We’ll also be going back to those who attended with thoughts on how best to take forward the many ideas generated.

Drew Mackie offers this more detailed commentary, supporting the questionnaire

We talk a lot about networks of all sorts. But often we just mean lists of people or organisations that we connect to in some way. To make real sense of networks, we need to understand their structure – and that’s where network mapping comes in. It’s the process of plotting the actual structure of a network. Not the artificial hierarchical structure that is shown in organograms, but the working structure of links and transactions revealed by survey and interview.

Of course the structures thus revealed are complex and shifting. Using specialised software, however, the underlying patterns of influence and information can be discerned. This process is often called social network analysis (SNA) and is used in business to identify HUBS – parts of the organisation that are central to the network as a whole – and GATEKEEPERS – parts of the organisation that control the flow of information or influence into sections of that network. SNA has been used in situations as diverse as:

  • Identifying the key organisations in community cohesion programmes in Lancashire.
  • The network of organisations delivering regeneration in towns in Northumberland and Galloway.
  • Internal and external links in a local authority Consultation and Engagement programme.
  • The identification of patterns of fraud and money laundering.
  • The mapping of terrorist networks.

The key to the analysis of networks is the concept of centrality. A node in the network will have importance because of how central it is to the whole network (this is called Closeness Centrality) or because it is the main link into a relatively separate part of the network (this is called Betweenness Centrality). The first type of centrality identifies the HUBS and the second the GATEKEEPERS.

So why map the organisations, groups and individuals? A good map will show:

  • Who’s most central
  • Where the gaps are
  • Who should be connected to improve network performance
  • Clusters of closely related nodes

Although the map configurations can be interesting in themselves, the map becomes much more powerful when combined with information on how skills and resources are deployed throughout the network. Coupling the map with an audit of skills and resources can show up issues such as:

  • Very central nodes that have no resources or skills – both HUBS and GATEKEEPERS
  • The location of needed resources or skills
  • New links that should be made to benefit the network as a whole
  • The “stock” of skills and resources held by the network as a whole

Mapping the July 6th Event

To map the existing links and assess the skills and resources held by participants, we used a questionnaire asking people to record

  • what organisations they worked with most
  • their impressions of how skilled or resourced they were under a number of headings.

This allowed us to plot a map showing clusters of organisations and which were most central to the network as a whole (see map). This can be used to suggest where new links might be created (what is often called “network weaving”) and particularly to connect clusters that are isolated from the main network (see boxed clusters at bottom right of the map).

There are some caveats:

  • not everyone at the event returned a questionnaire – some people objected in principle to assessing other organisations skills and resources. We received 40 replies.
  • we have not estimated the strength of links between organisations. All links are assumed to be equal and thus show potential connectedness – a bit like a road map that shows how towns are connected but doesn’t show the class of road.

Earlier Big Society posts


  • July 14, 2010 - 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Hey David

    Thanks for sharing this diagram.

    I must admin I was also a little uneasy about the way the exercise was delivered – and looking at the graph can see some troubling methodological issues with the way this works…

    I wonder if more participative network mapping approaches based on the NetMap Toolbox would be more appropriate?

    The issue with a ‘network generator’ question which asks people to assess their outward connections to other organisations in a very broad context is that unless go out and collect networks off everyone mentioned until you have networks data for every node – you necessarily get a distorted network… so whilst in relatively bounded communities with a limited number of nodes (e.g. a local community) it may be possible to generate a fairly comprehensive map – in the context of Big Society networks nationally I’m not sure how good quality a network diagram could be generated…

  • Drew Mackie
    July 14, 2010 - 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Re Tim’s comment I’m the first to admit that the collection of information for the map was not an ideal process. The presence of a roomful of potential network members was just too good to miss, but we didn’t want to interfere with the the main work of the evening. Normally in preparing these maps, we interview the participants and administer the questionnaire at the end of the interview.

    We have also used the participative methods Tim suggests (not Eva Schiffer’s kit but fairly similar) – getting people to draw the map or add to other people’s maps. The problem there is that people are trying to draw the map rather than recording what they know to be true from their position as a node in it, which is usually much more accurate (“the Node Knows”).

    Anyway, the BSN Open Night onfo gathering was an attempt to START gathering network information. It’s not trying to evaluate, it’s intended to find out who’s already working with whom and where the skill and resource assets lie. This can give a guide to future action: who do we try to bring together, what are the links to government and funders and so on. We are now looking at ways of making the information gathering process easier and more transparent.

    Happy to talk more about the mapping approach if you want to get in touch Tim.

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