This post describes the state of play with respect to the social network analysis process we have been using for We Live Here. In short – we have a method but we need to be better at using it.
A complete social network analysis of a neighbourhood or community would be a time consuming and expensive piece of work. If your intent is to use the discovered networks as the basis for community engagement activities then argueably an extensive exercise is not good value for money becuase of the dynamic nature of networks and the need to re-investgigate the network to discover the changes.
With We Live Here our objective has been to sample the network only to the extent which is necessary to create enough linkages to make it possible to create a dynamic entity which can then go on to self-manage further discovery and growth. Essentially we are looking for a catalyst group which will then work to find and connect the wider network within the community.
The sampling therefore needs to be robust enough to give confidece that we have found useful people but lightweight enough to be affordable to implement across large areas.
In Social Network Analysis terms this is broadly speaking a ‘snowball’ approach which explores the network from multiple points of entry rather than doing a complete sampling from specific individuals – in essence we are trying to understand reach rather than depth of social ties.
This echoes the practical sense in which we are using the SNA in order to support communication primarily rather than creating social cohesion which we see following on as a positive byproduct of improved communicative ties.
We are also trying to find community actors who are not currently participating in ways which are already known to the public sector as well as creating an overview of public sector activities in the area or topic we are examining.
This search for new kinds of participants could start in of variety of places. We focus on an online search which yields the kind of partcipants who have the skills that we need for We Live Here and also highlights new kinds of informal civic participation.
The process is now defined as follows:
1) Research scope – agree the online search terms and also the initial list for face to face interviews
2) Carry out online and initial SNA in parallel
3) Pause for analysis and definition of community interviews
4) Conduct community interviews
5) Pause again for data analysis
6) at this point we either loop until we are happy with the results or
7) Check data as part of Social Media Surgery conversation
8) present results in online directory + community meeting
With this kind of approach the most important element is finding the right point of entry into the network. If we do not discover this at point (3) then further research is needed before we start the community SNA process. Different techniques can be employed to find these points of entry and part of the agility of this approach is to ensure that you do not commit time to the process before you feel confident that you have identified these points.
The initial research as part of the pilot process tool at least 10 days per site. We expect to halve this for the second iteration and our ambition is to acheive 3 days research for the final process.
Where does this go wrong?
Our biggest mistake is in not remembering that this is a rapid sampling method rather than a complete analysis. Our objective is highly tactical and we need to keep at the from of our minds the fact that we are just looking for the point of entry and critical mass rather than a full picture which would be unattainable on the resources we are putting to this. For the next iterations we need to be better at limiting the time we spend on dead ends in network terms and keep coming back to find a new way in.
We (and this is really me) also need to be more disciplined about regular research reviews. Its very tempting to leave this to look after itself but the data needs to be looked at systematically on a regular basis to avoid falling down a rabbit hole.
Where does it go right?
Overall we are pleased with the method and are looking forward to trying it out from scratch with the next sites (more on that soon). Its proving robust and also effective at helping to change the dynamic of community conversations. In terms of formalising it I plan at some point to draw out and document some of the methods we have used to find the starting point as well as tightening up the write up of the discovery process used once we have the point of entry.
We are currently working on the plan for the next 12 months. We have commitments from the Council of course but we’re delighted that the NHS is also going to be formally involved in the next stage. We increasingly think that there is huge strengths in this kind of model being open to different public bodies and we are looking forward to exploring the practicalities of what this might mean.
I also need to write up our first community meetings – will do that this week – promise.