February 10, 2016

Mapping the Grapevine

An Introduction to Social Network Analysis

When many people think about measuring the impact of their nonprofit organization’s programs, they often think about service delivery metrics, website visits, or social media campaign statistics. While these metrics are good “proxies” for program impact, they may not be ideal in adequately capturing the long-term effects of public programs. This often results in undervaluing, and therefore under-appreciating, a number of programs that are designed to benefit the public. Information technology and recent methodological advances in the social sciences field has enabled program evaluators to overcome many of the hindrances in adequately measuring program impacts. One measurement approach that allows program evaluators to more robustly measure program impact is “Social Network Analysis.”

Imagine a Healthcare Program…

To appreciate the value of Social Network Analysis (SNA) program impact analysis, let’s use the example of a hypothetical program that is designed to promote access to healthcare among a medically underserved population. Assume that such a program planned to reach the target population through a website. A website tracking system would enable a program evaluator to find how many visited the website. These website visitors will certainly benefit from the information that they are exposed to and will likely utilize the healthcare resource that they are now aware of. However, there are some people who may not have access to computers and are therefore unable to visit the informational website. Some of those individuals, however, may know others who accessed the website information and may therefore be indirectly exposed to the information that was shared on the website. This may result in their use of the resource highlighted on the website. Information sharing creates a communication network as the information moves from one person to another.

In the above scenario, using the website visitation log to represent the program’s reach will most certainly underestimate the program’s value. By capturing and measuring both the direct and indirect channels through which stakeholders obtain information, a Social Network Analysis approach can improve the evaluation strategy to effectively overcome the limitation that is observed in the above project example.

What Is Social Network Analysis?

Social Network Analysis is “the process of investigating social structures through the use of network and graph theories.” The American Evaluation Association’s Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group site defines SNA as “a methodology for studying relational or relationship data and is grounded in understanding and applying the methodology within a context of networks.” As relationships evolve, a network forms of connections and this network forms a unique structure. Relationships can vary from communication, support, trade, and access to resources.

Researchers who use this approach focus on identifying, representing and measuring relationships between individuals. They represent individual actors using symbols that are called “nodes.” They represent the ties between the individuals using lines that they call “edges.”

As you can see, the approach allows for the tracing of the path of information, like new ideas and the flow of such information through the “grapevine” created by the “edges” of the network. We can also see how clusters form and where clusters connect to each other. Capturing such a rich landscape of information diffusion is made possible by modern information technology.

While experts are looking to better understand and visualize relationships with free and open source tools like Gephi and NodeXL, as a beginner, you can give Socilab a try. Socilab is a free tool that you use in conjunction with LinkedIn to better understand, among other things, the effective size, density and network constraint of your professional relationships.

So now that you’ve received an introduction to SNA, here are additional resources to help you continue your learning:

Image Source: “About Data Mining

Sophia Guevara
Sophia Guevara, MLIS, MPA, is the Virtual Events Committee Chair for the Special Libraries Association Information Technology Division. She is also the co-chair of the Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group at the American Evaluation Association. She is currently looking for presentation and writing opportunities.
Maryann Durland
Maryann Durland is Chair of the Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group at the American Evaluation Association. She is also the principal at Durland Consulting, specializing in program evaluation and the application of SNA in evaluation.
Simon Geletta
Simon Geletta is the Program Chair of the Social Network Analysis Topical Interest Group at the American Evaluation Association. He is also an assistant professor at Des Moines University.
Interest Categories: Data
Tags: Data, mapping