Society Mapping

Peder Soderlind of Glykol in Stockholm, Sweden approached me after reading Ambient Findability to discuss the relationship between findability and information literacy. This conversation morphed into the following (edited) interview centered around Peder's society mapping workshops.

Society Map 1

What is society mapping?

Peder: Society mapping is an exercise and a method to increase information literacy. The purpose is to place focus on the information producers in society. The feeling of unavailability and lack of perspective that many people experience concerning the amount of information available on the Internet is counteracted through this exercise. Our experience is that this is a very effective method to build critical thinking about information and information use.

What instructions do you give to students in your society mapping workshop? Do you provide them with a sample map or a template?

Peder: We divide the group into smaller groups of 4 to 6 participants. We then present a case or scenario - a crisis is at hand and each group must work on assignment of the Swedish government to produce a list of all Swedish actors that might be knowledge owners or information producers. Each group gets a specific subject area.

With a pen and paper the groups sketch which institutions, organisations and individuals will be invited to a hearing. The task also requires the group to organize the actors into different categories. We hand out overhead film and pens and show a template of how it's possible to sketch the society map.

The groups have only 30 minutes to discuss and make the sketch - no computers are allowed in the room nor are any other guides or references. The time pressure is important; it forces the participants to act. In our line of work information should also be seen as something perishable and we raise a warning: if the group delivers one minute late they don't pass. We always put a lot of energy into finding current and pressing subjects. This makes the participants more involved.

During the 30 minutes, we support the groups with different sorts of tips - most important is that they don't restrict their creativity. From time to time there is a dominant person in the group that limits productive suggestions - this must be handled in a wise way.

The society maps are then collected, displayed and compared. The participants can then see that no matter the subject, there are some categories of knowledge owners and information producers (actors) almost always present.

Society Map 2

Figure 2 (above) shows results from a group brainstorm around the subject of "full nuclearpower phased out effects on the climate." In the centre is the subject, then the main categories of actors, and in the outer circle are the actors.

Society Map 3

Figure 3 shows the categories which often present irrespective of subject.

What are some of the most interesting lessons or insights produced by the society mapping experience?

Peder: The participants often tell us this is probably something they always do - they have just not understood that this is what they do. If this is true, it has given them a name for what they do and they have become aware of their actions. If not, they have tried an alternative way of thinking. A society-based approach has been established. The idea is not to do this brainstorming for each information-need situation. But, next time we are presented a result list from Google, we can appreciate the different kinds of information or at least detect from which category of producer the information comes from.

Google Results

Figure 4 (above) shows a result list on the subject "full nuclearpower phased out effects on the climate." We state that some (one) part of the source/literary criticism has been done even before we have viewed the documents. Many organizations use databases that are not indexed by the search engines(the "deep web"). The society based approach supports the strategy of a two step search: first detect a relevant source (e.g., organization, database), and then perform a search.

It is important to remember that the maps created are pictures of the society in which the participants live - in this case Sweden. If the exercise would take place in, for example, the USA, the maps would differ from the ones done in Sweden by Swedes. Sweden is a small country, with half the gross domestic product created within the public sector - this shows in the maps. Secondly, the maps are also a result of the participants' knowledge about the society. Different groups, different maps. The maps made by a group of 20 year old students contain different elements to those made by 50+ librarians.

The next step in the workshop process is to talk about "how and why" information is created and made available via the Internet. Concepts we discuss include information types, agendas, databases, interfaces, literacy, and now findability. The exercise mostly addresses classic publishing: web pages with or without a database. When this is done we allow ourselves to talk about more complex environments such as flowing information, social networks, weblogs and so on.

Where should people go to learn more? Do you have any upcoming workshops?

Peder: Two times a year this exercise is done as a distance course in collaboration with Sodertorn University College. This year we have done about 30 sessions at different universities, organizations, libraries and companies. Beside our workshops, we perform research assignments, and believe it or not, we use the society mapping method, mostly at the start of the research process and as a part of the communication with the customer to specify their information needs. At the moment we are writing a book on this theme and the target group is new students in higher education - hopefully it will help build their practical information literacy.

In Conclusion

Peter Morville: Please join me in thanking Peder for sharing his company's society mapping process. In you have questions or want to sign up for a workshop, you can find Peder at Glykol.