An Introduction to Using Network Maps in Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication

By Ali Fisher

We live in a networked world. Whether known as family, kinship, tribe, village, neighbourhood, community, work place colleagues, or online social network, they are all networks in the sense of being a series of relationships between different individuals.

Social network analysis (SNA) explores the relationship between actors within a network by identifying the points that people "huddle around". Network maps allow a researcher to visualise and analyse data on complex interactions or relationships between large numbers of actors. In these maps the dots (nodes) are actors within the network and the lines (ties, edges or arcs) identify a relationship between the nodes which the tie connects.

Through the maps, groups (or cliques) can be seen more rapidly than a through a text based list. Groups that have high levels of interaction with each other form clusters of dots in different areas of the network map.

Identifying different clusters

Below is an example of a network map showing links between nodes. Each orange dot represents a unique individual. The blue dots are the points around which these individuals cluster and through which they interact. If this were a network map representing the discussion of particular themes on Twitter, the orange dots would be unique Twitter accounts and the blue spheres could represent the #tags people use to identify the theme about which they are tweeting.

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In this example, 5 larger groups of orange dots can be identified clustering around the five blue spheres which represent the #tags, the more incoming connections the larger the sphere. The orange dots clustered around one of the blue spheres are the individuals which contribute to only the #tag represented by that sphere.

Some individuals will contribute to more than one theme or #tag. These can be seen as a smaller cluster of orange dots between the larger groups, here examples are labeled Bridge Group A. These bridge groups provide the potential for ideas to flow between the otherwise isolated groups. Finally, a small group (Bridge Group B) can be seen in the centre of this map contributing to all 5 themes or #tags.

Application of mapping method to Public Diplomacy

This example, again analyses the way unique twitter accounts engage with particular themes but this time using data of individuals using Twitter. Similar to above, the user accounts are orange dots but this time the #tags are represented by larger orange spheres, again the larger the sphere the more users are contributing to that discussion. The map below demonstrates how twitter users take part in discussion of themes such as Freedom, America, Obama, US, and Politics along with discussion of Hillary Clinton's trip to India and Obama's visit to Ghana.

As before, the bridge groups contributing to more than one of these themes can be identified as clusters of orange dots with links extending to more than one of the large spheres.

To demonstrate the first level of insight which can be gained from this type of mapping; that those using the #tag identified for Obama's trip to Ghana (ObamaGhana) are an almost entirely separate group from those using the Obama #tag. There is only a very small bridge group between the two spheres.

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Next when looking at this type of network map (or tweetmap) it is possible to identify individual user accounts to see the discussions in which they are engaging. This would be useful in both planning and evaluation of online programmes as it would be possible to identify potentially influential individuals with which to interact or to understand the contribution an initiative may have made to a discussion.

In this example, two Twitter accounts run by the US State Department, Americagov and Dipnote, are represented by purple dots. These accounts are positioned on the edge of the map, between HillaryIndia and ObamaGhana, rather than engaged in the centre of the map with those using numerous #tags denoting the US, Obama, or Freedom or America. This indicates is that these discussions are happening on Twitter without the engagement of either Americagov or Dipnote; a potentially useful finding as the tagline used by America.gov is "Engaging the World", (unless the discussion is about America).

This introduction has focused on maps constructed using data from Twitter, but the maps can be constructed from data from other digital media, or meetings and relationships which occur in the physical world. To demonstrate this potential two maps are included below.

The first map seeks to identify which relationships between a series of websites and blogs by identifying which other websites have established a link to pages on those sites being analysed; in this case those labeled in the image (e.g. Mountainrunner, WandrenPD). This would allow the analyst to identify those sites which are taking a particular interest in these sites and the way in certain sites tend to link back and forth more than others. This may provide the ability focus attention on particularly active participants within the network or target resources in a particular direction, depending on the specific objectives of an initiative.

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The second is a map constructed at a recent training session in which individuals had to find out particular information about other participants (data was recorded in the workbooks they were using for the training session). The map shows the link established when individuals exchanged the information in the task; the more links the more successful an individual was. As a result the map shows Anu, Navo Bwalya and Sarah were more successful at the task than Ali, Mary, or Maggy.

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This introduction is intended to provide a basic understanding of how to view a network map. The potential uses of network mapping and social network analysis are vast. It can be used to plan, develop and evaluate engagement for, among other purposes, public diplomacy and strategic communication.

Ali Fisher is Director of Mappa Mundi Consulting and a former Director of Counterpoint, the cultural relations think-tank of the British Council. Ali blogs on network mapping and Public Diplomacy at WandrenPD.com

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.