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Three Tips for Making Network Analysis Actionable for Your Social Impact Project

Three Tips for making network analysis actionable for your social impact project

Joby Schaffer, MA, Associate Researcher at Spark Policy InstituteMany of our partners have adopted what Jed Miller and Rob Stuart called “Network-Centric Thinking.” They recognize that long-term sustainable progress on today’s social problems rarely comes from the efforts of a single organization. Rather, progress requires a strategy involving networks of organizations with the aim of producing network effects.

However, the strategist and evaluator’s task of connecting network strategy to network effects to final outcomes is often difficult, not least because networks are embedded in complex, adaptive systems in which cause and effect relationships are rarely straightforward. Moreover, because quantitative social network analysis (SNA) is often new to many social impact organizations, it is easy to get bogged down in superficial findings to the determinant of more actionable insights.

Three Tips for making network analysis actionable for your social impact projectThere are now a large number of resources on designing network analyses for complex evaluations (see some of our favorites below), but we’ve found three tips particularly useful for ensuring a network analysis yields actionable insights. In short, a design for evaluating a network should:

  • Start by adopting a framework for how network structure leads to network effects;
  • Avoid the lure of only using quantitative SNA; and  
  • Design your network analysis with future data collections in mind: connecting change in the network to outcomes is one of the most powerful insights you’ll uncover.  

Get a Framework

Our partners often make use of theories of change, systems maps, scenario mapping, power analyses, and other tools to frame the nature of the problem they want to address and to develop strategies to guide their work. For learning partners like us, these tools are often a key part of developing and shaping evaluation questions and hypotheses. However, because network theory is relatively new to most people, the expected impact of network strategies is often underspecified in these documents.

For example:

An initiative may agree that the presence of working relationships among cross-sector partners is an important interim outcome…

       …with the expectation these partnerships will help address an upstream driver of a problem…

       …but they may not fully consider how the strengths and weaknesses of the current network structure alters
their chances of activating this “network effect”…

      …which in turn limits their understanding of which actions are needed to advance the network strategy.

Frameworks help to address these problems because they relate network structure to network effects. For example, Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor describe three networks [pdf] on the basis of the depth of their connections – connectivity, alignment, and production. If an initiative aims for cross-sector collaboration (production), but the initial network analysis reveals little connectivity between organizations, it’s best to engage in more connectivity-related and alignment-related network building tasks before encouraging project collaboration.

Choose a Multi-method Approach

When most people think about network analysis, they think of network maps or strange-sounding network statistics like density or centrality. This is quantitative SNA, and it is an essential tool for describing structural properties of a network. Among other things, an SNA will reveal gaps in the network (e.g. perhaps organizations from a certain sector are underrepresented), show areas of deep or shallow connections (e.g connectivity among one subset and alignment among another subset), and identify which organizations play important roles in the network (e.g. bring unique partners to the network).

However, if used alone, SNA may mask a lot of the network information leaders need to make effective decisions. For example, network strategy often involves developing structures for coordination, including convenings, working groups, and shared measurement systems. While it’s possible to use SNA to wrangle some insights about whether these coordinating efforts lead to more effective partnerships, it’s often more meaningful to hear from participants how these structures influenced their work. In short, interviews are much better at capturing the organizational and inter-organizational effects of the network – innovations, greater efficiencies realized, knowledge and information shared, etc.

Design with the Future in Mind

It is good practice to design any evaluation with pre- and post-interventions in mind. Especially for quantitative SNA, it is worth the upfront time to identify what you hope your network will look like in the future, not just examine it today. Repeated network maps can show how the network is evolving over time, which is a great way to identify how coordinating efforts are producing network-level effects (e.g., better representation of certain sectors at convening events, connections made between subsets of the networks, etc.). Again, adopting a framework can be very useful. Many frameworks explicitly describe the stages of network evolution and provide guidance on how to identify and manage a network in transition.

The more social change agents adopt network-centric thinking, the better the chances we’ll make real progress on today’s social problems. We can support this mindset by ensuring our network analyses produce actionable insights. We’ve found these three tips are useful to our work. Based on your experiences, what other tips do you recommend?

New to network thinking or network analysis? Here’s a few of our favorite resources.

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Is Google Fusion Tables Right for My Social Impact Project?

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

What do the Colorado Farm to School Task Force and a Denver-based Community Navigator initiative have in common? Well, beyond the fact that they’re projects looking to make a big change in the world, they’re both initiatives that rely heavily on the idea of “place”. In our last blog in this series, we explored how mapping can help tell a powerful story and how GIS can help tell that story. But what do you do when you need a tool that is easy for your partners to use and apply on their own? Enter Google Fusion Tables. As the name implies, this web-based application makes it easy to merge (“fuse”) and analyze data with charts, graphs, and maps. In both projects, Fusion Tables allowed us and our partners to combine our existing information to produce actionable insights for the populations we serve.

From our experiences using Fusion Tables, we’ve found them to be…

  • Google Fusion TablesVersatile – effective for various tasks, including mapping and data management. Even better, it plays nice with other Google products like Google Sheets and Forms, which can be a significant benefit when working with community partners.
  • Good for Collaboration – as long as your partners have a Google account, they can use or modify the data, charts, and maps.
  • Relatively Easy-to-learn – if you feel comfortable navigating the internet and using basic spreadsheets, Fusion Tables are easy to use. However, administering and developing a new Fusion Table takes a bit more tech savvy.
  • Limited in Comparison to Specialized Tools – while you can get a nice set of maps, Fusion Tables are much more limited than standard GIS software. Similarly, if you want better tables and charts, Excel and Tableau are the way to go.

Over the years, our partners in in the Colorado Farm-to-School Task Force have cataloged the various initiatives and projects they and their collaborators have developed. They realized that combining and geocoding could:

  • Help them to address questions about how farm-to-school activities in Colorado have developed; and
  • Help their local partners identify potential collaborators in their geographic area.

We needed an easy-to-use tool that would allow for quick updates to a master dataset as new data comes in, to share the resource across collaborators, and to produce maps nice enough to include on a poster presentation. Fusion Tables met these needs and – importantly – allowed us to collaborate without worrying about the problems of version control. On the down side, we were unable to include multiple layers of geographic information, a standard feature of most GIS software; however, we were able to come up with a work-around solution. In the end, the maps we produced using Fusion Tables uncovered patterns about how farm-to-school activities relate to other food systems activities in Colorado. With this information, our partners can see potential partnerships with other food systems actors and identify which regions are most in need of their attention.

Colorado farm to school Google Fusion Tables map

Community Navigation

Using Fusion Tables for our work with the Denver Foundation’s Basic Human Needs Project was driven by the need for a database system that could be updated and used by a large number of individual community navigators. Community navigation, which connects low-income people to local resources through a resident navigator, can be improved when navigators share information about local service providers. The challenge is that this information is constantly changing. As part of the initiative, the navigators initially assembled a list of all the providers they use, but they lacked a mechanism for keeping the information up-to-date.

Unlike some other tools we explored, navigators can update information in the shared Fusion Tables database in real-time. They go even go beyond basic content information to adding columns for a rating scheme or updates about upcoming events. Moreover, the map option improved on the original shared Excel spreadsheet, allowing navigators to sort by different types of service providers in different locations and print either a table view or a notecard view of their sorted list.

We also learned that some collaborators can easily embrace the Fusion Table approach, but others struggle with committing the time needed to maintain the data and make the tool worthwhile to all.. If collaboration is essential to your effort, as it was in ensuring community navigators have access to up-to-date information about local service providers, it is important to have a conversation with your partners’ about their willingness to learn this new software.

Want to Learn More?

There are many resources on the web for learning how to use fusion tables. A good place to start is Google’s official site. Searching the web, you’ll find that other people have used Fusion Tables for a variety of tasks, including to tell causal stories (e.g., the Guardian’s analysis of the role of poverty in sparking riots in England), to produce information-rich interactive maps (such as The Nature Conservancy’s maps), and to incorporate publicly available data into their project (like the The Montreal Gazette’s depiction of population density in Montreal metro area).