On the Research Road: Meshing Physical & Online Community Mapping

On the research road…

In the spring, I decided to go on a “research road trip” to Silicon Valley and Northern California. The overarching research theme of my road trip was to engage in some deep learning and sharing on my main current R&D focus: community mapping. I was going to visit and stay over at friends and colleagues doing great related work in their “natural habitat”. Some of them I had not seen in years, or even only met online: Jack Park, Eugene Kim, Nancy White, Jeff Conklin, Jeff Mohr, Howard Rheingold, Bev Trayner, Etienne Wenger, and Marc Smith, it’s been so good to meet (again)!

Of course, a road trip is nothing without a car, although fortunately the Bay Area does at least have some decent public transportation when travelling within the metropolitan area. The car also afforded me to visit some of the stunning natural sights dotting the northern part of this great state, including magnificent Point Reyes National Seashore and South Yuba River, as well as the mesmerizing shorelines of Big Sur and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Interspersing meaningful and intense personal visits with days of regenerative solitude in nature turned out to be a strong stimulus of my “Deep Thinking processes”, very much in line with my “thinking communities” philosophy.

To get some idea of the spirit of the research road trip, watch this video  shot by my long-time friend and colleague Eugene Kim while I was visiting him in San Francisco:

The Berkeley meetup

One of the spin-offs of my journey was that Eugene invited me to give a talk at The Collective Spark in Berkeley. Hosted by Will Tam and Adene Sacks, it turned out to be a wonderful venue, atmosphere and bunch of most interesting and bright participants. We were received with drinks & snacks, allowing for people to meet and mingle extensively prior to the talk. After the talk, there were drinks again, so people could continue their animated conversations.

The WHAT of my talk was about participatory community mapping. It included examples from my R&D around the budding Tilburg urban farming community and other cases: using online network visualization tool Kumu to support the collective sensemaking of what the community is about and how to discover opportunities for community growth and innovation. See the slides:

Meshing physical and online community mapping

The novel part of the meetup for me was not so much the WHAT but the HOW. Over dinner the night prior to the meetup, Eugene and I were musing about how we could let the audience grasp the essence of community mapping more interactively than just by giving yet another standard presentation. We decided to create our very own “Instant Meetup Community Map”, taking advantage of the the Meet & Mingle-Introduction stage of this specfic meetup format.

We therefore asked the participants to not just have nice chats with various people before the start of the talk, but also tag each other with relevant topics that emerged during their conversations. This was to be done – very low tech – by putting sticky labels on each others’ sleeves.

As I was concentrating on getting to know the participants and preparing for the talk, Eugene acted as the community mapping facilitator. While everybody was still chatting away, he entered the participants and their associated topics in a simple Google Sheet. Kumu allows for maps to be generated automatically from such spreadsheets , so the emergent map could be visualized on-the-fly.

160905_Berkeley meetup community map

Just before my I started my presentation, we all had a look at the completed map together, with Eugene guiding our group discussion on what the patterns we distinguished might mean. The grey nodes indicated participants, and the orange ones topics. From the map overview, it’s easy to see how dispersed the interests of the group members were, yet there were a few common starting points, such as the topic of “consultant“.  Still, the very fact that all participants were physically there to immediately tell stories about their more exotic topic assignments, provided lots of food for conversation.

It was a fun and inspiring exercise, resulting in both an aha experience of the power of community mapping and a nascent bonding between the participants, who were discovering surprising things they had – or did not have – in common. This lived experience must surely have made the participants more receptive to and understanding of the more general community mapping principles I was explaining subsequently in my talk.

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To be continued

Although we did not have the opportunity to follow-up on this exercise with this particular group, it has wetted our appetite to explore how the meshing of physical and online community mapping processes could help build, innovate, and link communities. For example, what if we could fine-tune such practical community mapping process meshes and apply them to boosting the various life cycle stages of communities of practice?  What if we could use such tailored exercises to scaling up  social innovation initiatives from the bottom-up? Such community mapping practices could also be a instrument to help explore some of the main research themes and questions in the domain of communities & technologies and community informatics. Surely to be continued in future posts…