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Podcast: Aldo de Moor on Community Sense-making in Tilburg

How do you Kumu with Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor is a research consultant dedicated to bridging the gap between research and practice in the field of Community Informatics.

Currently the founder of CommunitySense, Aldo was previously a Senior Researcher at the STARLab in Brussel, Belgium as well as an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University. He has worked with a wide range of clients from domains as diverse as education, research, government, public libraries, business, and social innovation. Aldo is also the newest member of our Kumus.

Recently Aldo joined our "How do you Kumu?" series to share more about his work on urban farming in Tilburg.

If you like what you hear, sign up for the newsletter to receive more interviews directly in your inbox. If you'd prefer to read Aldo's insights, a lightly transcript of our conversation is below. Check out the Tilburg Urban Farming Community map here. Aldo's full paper on this topic "Towards a participatory community mapping method: the Tilburg urban farming community case" is available here or by clicking the cover of the report below:

Towards a participatory community mapping method


Jeff: Welcome to the "How Do You Kumu?" series with Aldo de Moor. Aldo, can you give us a quick background on who you are and where you’re calling from?

Aldo: Sure. Thanks for inviting me to this series. Actually, I’m based in Tilburg, the Netherlands. I’m a research consultant. I have my own research consultancy. Worked in academia for a long time and my background is community informatics and I really wanted to practice more what I preached. So I decided to become kind of a bridge between academia and society through my consultancy projects.

Jeff: One of the first questions we love to ask is how long you’ve been using Kumu. So what’s that for you?

Aldo: About one and a half years I think, about February 2014.

Jeff: Something we’ll be sharing in this interview, along with it, is the publication you did around community mapping methods for urban farming. So I wanted to first just back up and talk about why urban farming and how you got involved in that project.

Aldo: Sure. Well urban farming is an interesting domain for the kinds of applications that Kumu is very well versed for because urban farming really deals with localizing agriculture in a globalizing world. So it really has ideas of thinking global, but acting locally, about closing loops, about building communities, capacity, about lots of unknowns, and it’s really about crystalizing a movement with lots of fragments and how do you strengthen that movement. One of the ways for this movement to actually do that is by becoming aware of who they are and where they’re heading. I think Kumu is an excellent tool for that.

Jeff: One of the things that you had written about in that paper is this idea of community sense-making. I think a lot of this comes up with Kumu - how do we be more participatory - tell me a little bit more about that. Is that something you’re pushing the community into? Did they fall into it and why is community sense-making so important?

Aldo: Well I think what really happens with communities is that they get bogged down in the day-to-day chores of community making. Really, what unites a community is their common interests, around which they kind of evolve. But especially when you work a lot with online or with physical communities that have bits and pieces all over the place. Then you get lots of isolation and you really want to keep focusing on that common theme that you want to strengthen and push forward. It’s important to go into reflective mode sometimes. What I’ve found out so far in this project is that it’s a really cool tool to get people into that mood without them actually knowing it and starting to see the bigger picture. One of the things that I really like as a metaphor, which just came up a few days ago, is that actually it’s related to that Spaceship Earth picture, the famous picture the astronauts sent back when they were going to the moon. That may have been the biggest gift of this whole Apollo program: it was not so much about going to the moon but actually seeing Earth as a whole.

So what people really see when they see this big, complicated picture of what this urban farming community looks like, is that they see the big picture. They see that they are part of something bigger and I think that’s one of the most profound impacts that this mapping can have.

Jeff: When people see the paper they’ll see the map is big and complex. You’ve made a ton of progress here, but let’s roll back and walk through the steps of how does someone right now who is looking at starting this in a community, what are the steps to get to this large, complex map? What does that look like day-to-day, week-to-week, to be able to move along to that point?

Aldo: Well, I think one of the things I actually did before I started modeling was to come up with some good thinking about what’s the model, the conceptual model of a community? What does it actually mean to be a community? Both in terms of elements and connections. Or rather, I should say element types and connection types. I think one of the important things of Kumu is it has very well thought through semantics built in without people actually realizing it. It’s through these semantics that you can actually do so much. That was the first step.

Another thing is that it is very complex and I think one thing people should understand is that it is complex and it will remain complex. Because map making, sense-making, is really about the intelligence of why people work together. So everything comes into play and you can only reduce complexity so far. But one thing to do to deal with that, apart from having a well thought through language, is to have lots of iterations. Start small, tinker, don’t be afraid to throw away or change, and also to have lots of hands-on sessions with community members and actually go through what it means to them. I think these are some of the lessons that we’ve found are working.

Jeff: So tell me a little bit more about the roles of people who are involved. You did a lot of the map making itself, but were you working directly with community members? What does that process look like?

Aldo: Well, given the complexity both of the map making and the tool, which is quite complex, not everybody can or wants to get involved in understanding all of that. So this map maker role is an important one. The way I worked with people here is actually to first come up with some maps of my own based on some of the project materials. I went to several people doing some kinds of testing sessions. So just trying to model a bit of their network in what was already there.

Actually it was very interesting; what then happened was, we had a lunch, a plenary lunch, organized by the urban farmers. They brought their own produce; so it’s really people who are not normally into the ICTs per definition and I was actually afraid there would be a hostile response in terms of what’s this for? But they were really enthusiastic, basically all of them, and afterwards a lot of the urban farmers contacted me and said oh I saw this piece isn't there yet, would you add this one?

So that was really cool. At the same time, map making is a very expensive process. It’s very time consuming. So you really have to make trade-offs. So one of the trade-offs I made in this case is, of course people want to recognize themselves as a person, but since this is such a complex community of dozens of organizations and projects and then if you were to actually have a reliable, up to date map of all the individual people involved, that’s impossible.

So one of the trade-offs we chose for in this case, just organizational projects or a particular person if they are there by themselves, not as an organization. Also another kind of efficiency thing was that I produced, every three months, a new version of the map. So that I wasn’t continuously updating because that’s just impossible.

Jeff: Got it. So having defined timelines, people are trying to get information to you by that deadline, but not committing to saying hey, every month we’re going to do a new map.

Aldo: Exactly. Another tip is that people had to, in order to get their sponsoring, because it’s sponsored by the province (our "state" here in the Netherlands), they actually had to send three-monthly progress reports and we actually added the form. So a lot of the materials were already in the progress reports and I processed these reports and then we added some extra questions just for the finishing touches.

Jeff: So I wanted to zoom back again into the language you had talked about. It’s really interesting, you had been talking about the different types of relationships that you had thought of and how you define them, but maybe walk through the thinking on some of that. If there is any of that research you want to bring into it as well. But the four categories are informedness, membership, involvement, and producing, right?

Aldo: Yes.

Jeff: Okay, so I would love to hear more about those.

Aldo: Okay, so basically when I started thinking about what a community is, a community is not so much about what it produces in general, but much more about the connections, the inter-relationships. In the end I chose a model developed by Jack Carroll and others (Blacksburg community on the East Coast in the United States). They have developed a really interesting community model, lots of academic research, and they have followed a community, longitudinally for many years. So they really started to have a well thought through model and I adapted some of their constructs, of course simplified them. So don’t take this as a completely scientific thing, but at least it’s grounded in solid academic thinking and I think that’s interesting.

What I tried to do is to use the layout features of Kumu by having, let’s say, what you really want in a community is involvement, attraction, trust building, social capital. So it’s really about going from very loose, light connections to very strong, interactive, interdependent relationships.
So basically the constructs I chose here were, first what people want to know is they want to know which stakeholders need to be informed about developments in the community. So they have some kind of, they’re like satellites. They’re around the project, but they are not necessarily directly interacting with it. But they are stakeholders who need to be in the know of what really happens there. So that was a very light blue line that I drew.

The next one is membership. It basically says I’m a member of this community; like the urban farmers in our project. So they’ve committed to being a member, but the member by itself doesn’t mean much. But it means something like you’ve committed and you want to collaborate.

Jeff: So for membership, is that, that’s a line you’re drawing. So it’s membership to kind of, not in general of the whole urban farming map, but particular communities and projects within that? Is that the way to think about that?

Aldo: Yes. It could be membership like being a member of an organization. So you have a formal organization, but in this case we had this kind of project community. So the line here was really if you were in the project plan, you were one of the members who have committed. But yes, what you really see of course, with all of these choices that you make, there are always gray areas. I think that’s something we have to live with in community mapping. There are a lot of grays and a lot of fuzziness there.

So as long as you don’t take it too seriously in the sense that it is a complete and accurate description of reality. But it is really a communication and thinking and reflecting tool. Then it doesn’t matter so much. It’s really about getting the conversation going; that’s how to use these maps.

The involvement is really about doing things together like organizing a garden session somewhere or organizing a workshop or doing something.

Producing is really what, in normal kind of bureaucratic worlds, is considered to be a deliverable. Something that is measurable that you can present within a repository or something like that. What you often see is that, for example in provincial projects, there is a lot of accountability issues there. You have to submit all kinds of reports and basically, what still happens is that in many of these projects, the success factors are the deliverables even though the real success factors are the network that’s strengthening but you normally never see it.

So by having these maps, and that was really amazing, actually the managers of these projects who have to talk to the funders, are very interested in this because it’s a way for them to actually be accountable to funders and to the general public to see what’s happening - we are having impact. And these deliverables don’t matter so much it’s really about the network of connections that’s growing.

Jeff: Right and this being a way to actually make that tangible whereas for so long it’s just been this intangible that people talk about that people couldn’t actually evaluate.

Aldo: Absolutely, and the layout helps because, for example, these real producing and then involvement relations are drawn in a thick, red line. So it’s immediate visual impact that you can see and then, of course, you can start thinking about what are really the subcategories and what are better colors - but that’s future work.

Jeff: Let’s talk a little bit about people’s takes on what was different because of this process, what were some of the outcomes? You mentioned some of it with being able to actually show changes in the network structure. But what were some of the other big takeaways from folks about what was different about using this process?

Aldo: Well, what I really think that the people really liked is that, first of all it’s seeing the bigger picture. Because people in these communities, they really are idealists that have a mission. They are on a mission. They coalesce around the abstract concepts of urban farming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean very much until you start really working with it.

So what I really sought is to have them see themselves as part of the bigger picture, that’s really interesting. What’s an interesting side effect is that people who are on the edges of the community, so are not the hubs; sometimes they don’t care because they just have a small role to play. But sometimes you really see that they actually want to be in the middle, in the center. So it’s a friendly bit of pressure. It actually helps to generate drive for them to either map themselves better or become more active.

So that’s from the perspective of the participants. What’s also interesting for them, especially through the features of focus and filters, is that actually you could have added too, for example your LinkedIn profile as a company or as a person. So it’s a way of marketing yourself and seeing yourself in a live map, which is cool for many people.

From the community management point of view, we actually explain this whole idea about being accountable. So for them that’s a way for them to show their progress, but also from a management point of view, to actually see the way that what could be the next focus for them as managers or facilitators in growing the community. Because you can actually see that there’s two big hubs and there’s not much in between. Could we develop a connection there, an involvement relation between those and how are we going to do that? So it’s a way to really build community.

Jeff: So if someone is watching this video right now and they are thinking about getting started, what would be some of the advice you would give about what needs to be in place before you can actually, reasonably think you have a shot of success at using this method?

Aldo: I think make up your own language first. I mean, this is just one way that worked for me, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t other languages that could work just as well in your case. So think through the elements and connections. Then start modeling a little bit of it yourself. Get some of the information about the community through talking, through documents, whatever. Doesn't really matter so much what you model as long as you model something. Add some content in there. Add some pictures. What also works very well is add some YouTube videos. That’s really cool. People can immediately see what actually the boots on the ground of Kumu really is. Instead of just being up there in the air of the lines.

So you have something to show and then have these hands-on sessions with some of the movers and shakers - the people who are already the natural hubs. Because those people wrestle with these issues. They are the natural clients of Kumu I think and they think it’s very cool to get a grip on the chaos in their heads that they don’t really know what to do, how to deal with it. So it’s kind of a Getting Things Done kind of thing. You get it out of your system, you see it there, and it’s got you.
Then lots of iterations and in our projects, since we actually discovered Kumu quite late so it could only go through three iterations of the map, but my advice would be and that’s what I will do in future projects is use this from the beginning and try to make the iterations as small as possible. But on the other hand, you have to take into account how many resources you have.

So really just think the resources issue through because it’s not trivial. It consumes time and yes, to have a mapmaker role. Be really clear about who is going to enter the data because maps are fragile. It’s very easy for people to lose branches without them knowing it and then if the next mapmaker comes, it may just have disappeared without anybody realizing it until much later in the project.

So I think that’s really something to train people and if you are not sure, do it yourself and ask people to submit it through spreadsheets or whatever. As long as you have a process in place to get the information.

Jeff: So tell us what’s your hope for the future with the model for you? Where does it go from here? Where are you going to go after urban farming, spread this more globally?

Aldo: One thing that I’m working on in our region in the Netherlands in Tilburg, we’re really big on social innovation. In the Southern part of the Netherlands there is really a collaborative culture. It’s a really informal culture of people and organizations to work together, which is cool because it means that social innovations can really scale and get impact.

So what I really want to do now is to actually start applying the things I’ve learned and keep evolving the ideas in a social innovation environment. So apply it to other projects, but especially start to see how I can use it to connect projects because what you see in social innovation is all the time there are different configurations of stakeholders and issues and projects and resources and continuously they kind of mesh. The mesh often becomes a mess, so how can we clean up the mess and create more of a mesh? That’s something I really want to work on.

There is actually quite a bit of interest in Kumu. People are intrigued by it. They still have to be won over but that’s going to be my mission for the next few years I think because I think this tool is really, it’s more than just a tool. It’s also a way of thinking and what I really like about it is that you have that manifesto. It’s kind of your motto and I think that’s really something that resonates with me.

So I see this as not just another piece of software; it’s really a way to start changing the world from the bottom up. Let’s see how far we get with that, quite far.

Jeff: Awesome, thanks. So there are a couple of questions that we love to ask each of the people in the "How Do You Kumu?" series. So the first is what’s your favorite feature of Kumu?

Aldo: I think the very powerful selectors that you have because that big picture is great, that’s a wow moment that you need for people to really feel belonging to that community. But then you have to zoom in again and start doing things and working on it. Then all these filters and selectors become really important. So to really makes sense of parts of the map and see the big picture through the parts that make sense.

Jeff: If you could change one thing about Kumu what would that be? Or one feature you could add, what would that be?

Aldo: One thing that I would really like is I must say I still have to explore more, but I like the idea of having multiple maps within projects. That would be easy to quickly select let’s say a subgraph from one map and get that exported to another map and work from it from there. I think that’s one thing that I would really like to see.

And another thing that has to do with this, if I may, is some kind of a log of changes. As a master mapmaker, somebody who is supervising the whole thing, to make sure that nothing actually went wrong there.

Jeff: Kind of the activity feed, the change history/log type of thing?

Aldo: Yeah, maybe, I’m not sure how but that’s something to think through in a way that makes sense. So that you don’t have to go through hundreds of different tiny changes potentially but have some way to see what really happened. I don’t know how clear it is but I think that would be a really good feature.

Jeff: Okay, and then what’s your favorite line from the Kumu manifesto?

Aldo: We are all responsible.

Jeff: Tell me a little bit more?

Aldo: Well what I really like about it is it’s exactly what I said just now. You start to work with that little piece of this incredibly complex world that we’re all living in, start doing your thing there, and through these mapping features actually start to discover the patterns and the bigger connections. That what you act locally here can through thinking globally start influencing local actions somewhere else.

I really like that idea; it’s about empowerment. This is also what I want to do with developing a methodology called participatory community mapping method. It's really about this participation, about people becoming owner of a little piece of that very complex reality and through reflecting upon the maps together, start to make some sense of it and start scaling up the capacity for change.

Jeff: Okay, great. I want to thank you for your time. Any last words before we sign off?

Aldo: Keep up the good work.

Jeff: Awesome, hey thank you Aldo and the community appreciates it a bunch and hopefully they’ll get to see even more from you soon on the blog.

Aldo: I’m sure they will. Thank you.

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