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May 13, 2010

creating informed communities (part 4)

This is the fourth of five strategies proposed to achieve the goals of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities. See Monday's post for an overview.

Strategy 4: Generate Public "Relational" Knowledge

Citizens need facts about organizations, leaders, and issues. They need rival interpretations of those facts, and deliberative public judgments based on such interpretations. Citizens also need to understand the relationships among people, organizations, and issues. All competent civic and political actors, since the beginning of time, have held in their heads implicit "network maps" that link ideas and individuals in their community. They know, for example, that if they want to talk to the leader of the town, they should go through an accessible individual whom the leader regularly consults. If someone raises a local issue, they can link it to relevant organizations and to related issues.

In recent years, three developments have underlined the importance of such thinking. One is the "The New Science of Networks," as Albert-László Barabás subtitles his book Linked. This science is the mathematical exploration of nodes and network ties as they arise under various conditions, and it has yielded powerful insights, such as the value of "weak ties" and the importance of individuals who connect disparate communities.

The second development is the enormous popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, which are driven by webs of relationships. These sites have popularized the concept of network ties and underlined their importance. But Facebook and other corporate social networks keep the relational data--the "network map"--to themselves. They do so to protect users' privacy and also to give themselves a valuable asset. For example, to reach everyone at Tufts who has a Facebook account, we must pay Facebook to advertise. We cannot see a list of users who have Tufts connections.

The third development is the art of relational organizing. Relational organization groups such as the Industrial Areas Foundation and the PICO and Gamaliel Networks do not begin with clear and fixed goals. They decide what their causes should be by means of long periods of listening and discussing within diverse networks that they carefully nurture. They are highly skilled at mapping networks to identify power relationships, excluded groups, and key hubs. [See, e g., Mark R. Warren, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 31-2..

The next step is to democratize the possession of effective network maps, so that they do not exist only in the brains of skilled organizers or on the servers of Facebook and MySpace. Informed communities should have access not only to discrete facts and lists of organizations--nor should they be satisfied with geographical maps that show the physical location of organizations. They should be able to build and consult public network maps that allow them to identify power, influence, exclusion, division, and other attributes of relationships, not of individuals.

Working with Lew Friedland and his colleagues at Community Knowledge Base, we have been experimenting with public network maps in two contexts:

These are just preliminary experiments. They do not yet harness the full potential of network analysis and visualization, nor the power of computers to harvest network data automatically from websites. My basic recommendation is that governments and foundations should invest in providing transparent relational data along with the other information that is already online.

May 13, 2010 10:23 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments



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