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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Ildefonso, Ph.D.

Collaborative Real-time Maps: New Tools for Activism

Imagine an interactive map that you and your community/staff/collaborators could generate in real time just by filling out a simple survey. How would you use this technology? 

At North Arrow, we’ve been brainstorming creative ways to put collaborative maps in the hands of activists. Recently, we had an opportunity to try it in new ways during a partnership with Culture Hack Labs, one of the world’s leading organizations working to challenge and change cultural narratives. They have designed research tools to capture and analyze large volumes of social data to gain insights about the dominant narratives that shape our social relations (often for the worse!). They then work with activists from all over the world to “hack” or change the narratives to ones that are life-affirming.

In thinking about how we could support their work, our idea was to use “live maps” during their upcoming in-person workshop with workers' justice activists to visualize, in real time, participants’ insights. Given the diversity of participants from all over the world, the workshop presented a unique opportunity to develop a shared understanding among the organizers about the dominant narratives that drive worker exploitation and economic deprivation and the emerging narratives that support empowered workers and dignified working conditions.

Culture Hacks Lab's Workshop In Costa Rica
Culture Hacks Lab's Workshop In Costa Rica

How does a “live map” work?

Example of the forms powering the live maps

Participants were divided into groups and asked to answer a set of questions about the different dominant narratives that impact work conditions. Questions included:

  • Where do you see this narrative taking place? Draw the area on a global map.

  • How powerful/influential is this narrative?

  • What strategies are these narrative communities using in these regions?

Once they filled out the survey their answers automatically populated on a series of interactive maps and dashboards that we set up ahead of time. The map visualizations included:

  • A global map showing the the locations of all of the narrative communities 

  • A series of power maps that visualized the strength or power of each dominant narrative in a certain area 

  • A map-based dashboard showing related strategies employed by practitioners of each narrative community

North Arrow - Using maps to show predominant narratives

By collectively looking at their responses across a series of interactive maps, participants could easily make comparisons and gain new insights that would not be possible without the visualizations. The maps also brought a unique spatial perspective to the conversation, further enhancing the conversation and collaboration.

After the workshop, Mehul Sangham, Ph.D. the Executive Director of Culture Hack Labs, shared his reflection:

The ability to visualize the diverse narratives and strategies from our participants in real time was invaluable. It sparked deeper conversations and insights that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. I can see this technology being incredibly useful in various contexts, from workshops to long-term strategic planning. It’s a tool that brings data to life in a way that’s both accessible and impactful. Mehul Sangham, Ph.D.
North Arrow - Live-mapping dominant narratives

Why this tool matters for nonprofits

The success of this project highlights several reasons why such tools are beneficial for nonprofit organizations:

  • Facilitation and Insight: Interactive maps facilitate conversations and provide real-time insights during live events.

  • Spatial Analysis: Understanding the geographical context is crucial for addressing social injustices and developing viable solutions.

  • Enhanced Learning: Visual presentations cater to visual learners, making information more accessible and memorable.

  • Post-Event Resources: The maps serve as valuable resources and recaps after the event.

  • Grant Applications: Including maps in grant applications can effectively demonstrate achievements and needs.

  • Efficiency: Creating these tools requires minimal time from the nonprofit’s team. For CHL, we developed the surveys and maps in just three weeks with only a few calls with their team.

  • Innovation: Utilizing such innovative tools sets nonprofits apart from those using traditional methods.

  • Versatility: The tools can be used for crowdsourcing information from different audiences, showcasing their wide applicability.

Our collaboration with Culture Hack Labs exemplifies how innovative visual tools can enhance strategic conversations and collaborations. We’re proud to support organizations like CHL in their mission to drive systemic change and look forward to more opportunities to put these cutting-edge tools to great use! 


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