Networking by numbers

December 5, 2011 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.

What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.

A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.

Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.

We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.

And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.

Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.

We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.

You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers

Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.

It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.

This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.

Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.

So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?


  • Atif Shafique

    This is great – sounds very exciting.

    With regards to researchers, the current process is definitely quite tedious and time-consuming, and this new approach will save a lot of time and may even make it more enjoyable for the community researchers, as well as being more efficiency/effective/smooth (issues over brandishing expensive technology out on the streets of some very deprived locations aside)

    Providing such a tool to the general public could also potentially be very empowering. I wonder if it might also be used as part of a careers service – offering people the chance to have a look at the structure of their social networks, finding gaps, and then helping people close these gaps through appropriate training, attending events, connecting them with relevant stakholders, etc. Employment is one obvious area where connections are vitally important – would be great to see careers services offer not only advice and job listings, but also helo to expand/strengthen social networks.

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