Networking the networks

This mission report is on a pilot project called We Live Here, which is running in two areas of Brighton, UK.

We’ve tried to create a civic space by networking the networks that already exist in the community. Our idea is that people won’t come to portal sites, and they already trust and feel comfortable in their existing networks. Rather than setting up single conversations, or debating sites (where only the few interested in debate will go), we wanted to strengthen the existing network, make it’s reach wider, and use it for democratic conversations.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Used an interative mapping process to map the key civic network in the area. We asked local public services for the names of the five people they thought were particularly active in that community. We went to find them and asked them who they spoke to about their neighbourhood, who they trusted for reliable information about their neighbourhood, and who they would recommend to someone who was new to the neighbourhood. Then we asked the people they named the same questions.

  2. Using basic network analysis on that information, and also social media and online searching to find people who weren’t part of the traditional network, we produced a civic network map for each of the areas. The process is described more fully by one of the other project partners here.

  3. We collated the content from that civic network, plus relevant social media searches, in a website for each area (like this one)

  4. We started (and are still continuing) conversations with activists in each neighbourhood on what they would want to see added to the website or contributed to the activist network in order to build democratic capacity, or support volunteering. The main requests were:

  • a tool to ask public questions of the council and see public answers
  • social media surgeries to bring more people online, and get them introduced to volunteering opportunities
  • tools for smaller sub-groups to help them arrange events, and see conversations in very small communities
  • an event calendar
Here's what we learned:
  • You have to keep community leadership, inclusion and co-design at the heart of what you do - and communicate that more than you think you need to. Innovation can sometimes come across as "testing our brilliant idea on you", particularly in communities that have had a lot of different projects tested on them. Communities have long memories.
  • Make sure that community voices are heard on the project team
  • Communities are suspicious of hit-and-run engagement, particularly when the project explicitly links itself to innovation. Make clear that you are setting up the localities to carry on their networks for the long term, and to become self-sufficient.
  • Relationships need reciprocity. At time of cash constraints civic activists are suspicious of possible new burdens. Work to deliver positive by-products through the process for example the social media surgeries.
  • People don’t think about “democracy”, they think about needs. Although people felt that there were issues that they wanted to raise with the council and with public services, the civic activists we spoke to were largely uninterested in “democracy” conceptually. They were interested in getting solutions to community needs, and expressing community voices - goals that actually would need to be delivered by democracy.

Networks everywhere!

I, too, am interested in networks, and now can’t help seeing them everywhere. The conversation in Egderyders, too, is being mapped onto a graph (with arcs representing comments, for now). You can see an early analysis here.

I would like to know a little about your findings. I tried following your link, but it’s broken and I get a 404. :frowning:

Broken link

Whoops, try this link

Corrected in the main piece as well.

No analysis?

Thanks! But… where’s the network analysis? All I see is a directory!


I’ve attached a diagram as an image (with names removed) to show the different nodes in one of the two networks we reveiwed). I’ll try to find the more detailed records when in the office on Monday.

The write-up of the methodology we used is here.

The three key points from the work, which I can expand on at the conference, are:

  • the purpose of the exercise was to map the mountaintops not the whole terrain - to identify the most important people to involve in wider community engagement exercises - and with that proviso as to thoroughness it was a quick and cheap way to get understanding of the community from the perspective of relationships and organisations, and a rough way of finding the most important nodes

  • we saw three very different networks in the three different networks we surveyed (two physical areas and one Black and Minority Ethnic Community network). The poorer area, which had a lot of investment in community development, had a very tight central network [this is the diagram in the picture], which surrounded the people involved in the existing community development work. The richer area, where there had been no recent investment in community development, had a more random-looking network, like a packet of dropped spaghetti, with multiple one-to-one links and some overlaps but no central core network. The BME group was entirely the opposite, with almost everyone knowing the network co-ordinator, but hardly anyone else in the network.

  • it was helpful in building credibility for our wider conversation on tools and democracy to show the network to the people we’d interviewed and check with them whether it looked like their experience of community involvement in the area (in all cases, it did).

Uh, ok

I get it - sort of, the methodological post is not too clear.

So, edges represent trust, right? A tells you that B is someone to talk to, you draw an edge from A to B. Directed, right? A => B does not imply B => A. Suppose A names B as a person to talk to; suppose further that, when you ask B to name interesting people, B names A. Do you also draw an edge from B to A? Or do you just move on along the network of trust, worrying about finding people rather than mapping whether the trust is reciprocated?

The graph you pasted onto the mission report is a little small and difficult to read (can we have a bigger image?), and you don’t report any metrics, but to me it looks like a central kernel connecting local hubs who in turn connect some spoks. It probably has a high modularity value, with well-defined subcommunities.

Snowball samples have the characteristic that they sort of imply giant components. If you start from one single person, you have to end up with a giant component because each new addition to the network is called upon by someone: there are no singletons. If you start with an initial batch of three people, it’s not required but very likely you will. How can you get disconnected “random” networks like the one in the richer area?

In general, I feel your sampling method influences a lot the shape of the resulting network, so much in fact that you might wonder whether the latter is a function of the former more than of any external social forces.

a call for a secure digital identity

You are offering a solution for one the main pitfalls of citizen participation: for each new initiative a new social network or community is built. And a lot of resources are spent to put the new network into force. (And are losing the momentum for real change.)

I can explain why this is happening. Politicians (I am a member of the city council of Amsterdam) and government are used to cooperate with legal entities which are easily to define. For example: we know who the members of the board are of a foundation. In the case of a labor union we know the number of registered and paying members. Social networks and online communities can be far more vital and effective than those old organizations but are less clear to define. I think that tools and methods for social networks analysis as you described are very important to get an overview of dominant network and communities to focus on. But it also works the other way round: citizens can make a better selection of the networks they want to join. (Or keep connected to the network they are most used to instead of signing up again for another network.)

In addition to that I also think we need to pay more attention to digital identity as well. I can have various accounts on one and the same network. I can use my own name for that or can use all kind of fake accounts. For effective citizen participation we need to solve this problem. As a government you want to talk to those networks which exists of members who are willing to identify themselves, not by showing their full name and address in public constantly, but at least at the moment of registration for the network.

I am curious if the problem of digital identity is also tackled within your project.

Check this out

Great insight, Carlien. Edgeryders itself is a social network. Chek this out:

representation of Amsterdam?

Hi Alberto,

I already checked it out. I noticed that Amsterdam is nog very well represented according to the graphics. How can I find out which people from Amsterdam are participating in EdgeRyders?

grtz Carlien


There is a field in your user profile called “Homes”, and that is where you are supposed to write where you are based (or anyway relatively simple to reach). It was meant to make it easier Edgeryders to meet up. However,not everybody fills in their user profiles (there are just under 400 user profiles out of 1,000 Edgeryders users), and not everybody that fills user profiles fills that one particular field.

That said, the best I can suggest is to head to the Hangout page and use the Search form, inserting “Amsterdam”.

Months ago, Jamel Benguerba had made this map withthe data available at the time, but it has not been updated since.

search for amsterdam

What you are describing is ofcourse one of the well known difficulties for online networks. How do we get complete profiles of participants? How nice it would be if we had secure digital passports and people would not have to bother about filling in all those profiles :wink:  I’ll do a search as you recommended

Actually, no :slight_smile:

All browsers complete that stuff for you upon request. I think it is appropriate that we choose what to disclose in which environment. Interoperability is technically convenient, but has just too many privacy issues for confort. Edgeryders is designed as a space where you actively choose what to disclose about yourself. :slight_smile:

well, it is a matter of definition

the thing is that with a  well designed digital passport (or perhaps the better description is digital personal safe) you can think of solutions were you can choose with part of your profile will be used. I think that in most cases it is a matter of indifference that people don’t fill in there profile.

Agree, but…

Of course, most people are just not that attentive. And yet, we - government side - need to preserve that leeway, because insisting that people feel all the fields is going to feel sinister and Big Brother-ish to some people. I would rather have holes in my database than lose a single citizen expert, who potentially could give the community great insights, to lack of trust.

We have OpenID anyway, and people don’t care for it all that much. I just don’t think this is top priority for citizens just yet: it is more an e-gov thing.

getting things into practice

Dear Demsoc,

I am very interesting in your methodology and want to try to get into practices in one of the districts of Amsterdam. Is there any toolkit or something that can be used? Or is there an organization or contactperson I can ask to help with it?

Grtz carlien