Mapping as Method

July 16, 2015

In my 8th grade history class we didn’t write a single paper. Instead, grades were based on the mind maps students drew of the topics we studied and oral presentations we made. This rather unusual approach to education was thanks to our unorthodox teacher, who had opted to leave his job in the IT sector to pursue a passion for teaching — and we were his first test cases. While writing reports is certainly a skill that has come in handy, this early exposure to visual thinking has also stuck with me.

As Dharma pointed out in her post on sketching user experiences, sometimes words simply aren’t the most efficient or the most clear method to communicate what’s needed. I find various types of visual “mapping” especially useful when I’m trying to think through relationships between things — whether that’s ideas, organizations, trends, or the various parts of a complicated issue.

One of my favorite books is Else/Where Mapping: New Cartographies of Networks and Territories from 2005. While we might typically think of maps as describing physical space, Else/Where Mapping categorizes multiple kinds of “space” that can be mapped, including: social space (representing power relations within and between organizations), physical space (the city, the region, the globe), and information space (patterns in vast quantities of data). For example, Robert E. Horn‘s “policy maps” are designed to help policy makers do their jobs better:

Our project has been designing and developing highly visual “cognitive maps” that facilitate the management and navigation through major public policy issues. These maps have benefits for policy analysts and decision makers similar to those of geographic maps. They provide patterned abstractions of policy landscapes that permit the decision makers and their advisors to consider which roads to take within the wider policy context. Like the hundreds of different projections of maps (e.g. polar or Mercator), they provide different ways of viewing issues and their backgrounds. They enable policy makers to drill down to the appropriate level of detail. In short they provide an invaluable information management tool. (Read more here.)

Picture 5

Horn’s team has developed policy map prototypes in areas including genetically modified food, national missile defense, national drug policy, the dilemmas and dynamics of delivery of mental health services (for Portland, OR) and integration of over 400 agencies and 70 funding streams for long term care (for Alameda County CA).

Another example featured in Else/Where Mapping is the work of management consultant Valdis Krebs and Orgnet, which offer social network analysis software. They use this to do things like: reveal opinion leaders in various medical fields, discover collaboration amongst NGOs, and map linking patterns among blogs.




In other words, there are many exciting ways to use “maps” to give a literal picture of a complex system or to answer a research question.

When I’m working on a project I also finding mapping/visual diagramming useful as part of the analysis process. Even if the final product might be a written report, I often start by sketching out the different actors or concepts involved. As I’m reading through material I add to or change my sketch to reflect new nuances in my understanding.

For instance, I worked on a project to help identify potential allies for a new organization in the sustainability space. In this community people often make a distinction between “light green” (folks who consider sustainability to be a good idea, but see it more or less as an add on to business-as-usual) and “deep green” (folks who believe that true sustainability is only possible with systemic change). But, within this basic distinction there are many subtleties. To help tease that out I created a map with four quadrants:

Picture 6

I placed approximately 100 key concepts, people and organizations onto this map, such as resilience, Al Gore, cradle to cradle, peak oil, the Post Carbon Institute, BALLE, Ghandi, and so on.  I categorized each based on whether their approach was hopeful or fearful vis-a-vis their view of the future and what level of change they advocated for ranging from small changes, to deep shifts in how we live. This helped to create a still simple, but more useful, map of the sustainability world and highlight both similarities and large differences in the approaches of various “greens”.

Generally, my preferred tools when using mapping as an analysis tool are very simple: paper & pen and a box of colored pencils. But, I sometimes transfer these sketches to the computer to be able to more easily share them with others. There are a number of free mind mapping and concept mapping softwares available. One of my favorites is Wise Mapping, which is easy to learn and has an online interface (as opposed to a program one downloads to one’s computer).

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Methods Madness, Systems