How to Create Live Maps of Conference Connections

Have you ever been frustrated trying to find the person you needed at a busy conference? I recently use a new tool called sumApp to map conference connections in real time. sumApp’s founder, Christine Capra, interviewed me about the experience. Here’s a lightly edited version of that interview, written by Christine and cross-posted from her blog.

Maya was recently engaged to speak at the Annual Convention of the Ohio Association of County Boards for Developmental Disabilities (OACB). She was invited by Adam Herman, OACB’s Communications Director, who had heard her speak about networks.

Every county in Ohio has a board that funds and oversees services for people with developmental disabilities. Some of the boards are tiny and have few resources, while others, in the major metropolitan areas are larger. All have challenges.

Adam wanted to help county board staffers shift from thinking of themselves and their counties as isolated, disconnected entities. He wanted boards to understand networks so they could use that knowledge to communicate more effectively within counties and with colleagues across the state. He wanted to help people understand where capabilities resided so that they could draw on each other as needed. Overall, he saw a future in which county boards embraced and leveraged the power of networks to do their work more effectively.

Why Use Network Maps?

For this type of presentation, Maya typically uses network maps to illustrate network concepts.

I want people to have a concrete experience with a map, with being able to see a network. Usually, people don’t have that capacity. They’re not used to it. They can draw their ego network (the people that they’re connected to) and they have some sense of their second-degree networks (who those people might be connected to).

[The ability to get a picture of a whole I think is valuable and needed now more than ever.] We’re in a volatile world… where things are changing constantly and often people need to reach out into those extended networks for help and support. In today’s world, they’re also impacted by what happens a few degrees out. So, the more they can see those extended networks, the more prepared and more resilient they can be when the unexpected happens because they’ll have a better sense of the resources available to them.

Maya saw an opportunity to use sumApp and Kumu as her mapping tools to create a network map in real time. She wanted to create a network map of the session participants, starting from when they walked in the door, and culminating in a completed map for them to interact with before the session was over. She reached out to me (Christine) to see if I thought that would work.

Of course, I said yes! I do all kinds of cool stuff with sumApp and Kumu, and I’ve been dreaming of building a map with a live group, in real time, but haven’t found the right opportunity yet. When Maya reached out, I was already primed to get on board and support her efforts however I could, which turned out to be crucial, because the event ended up coinciding with the release of the new version of sumApp. That meant we were still getting the technical kinks worked out, and, in this instance, it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t been on hand to troubleshoot the incipient crisis.

Why Do It Live? Isn’t That a Hassle?

This was Maya’s first experience working with both sumApp and Kumu. I asked her what made her choose to make that bold leap of learning in front of a group.

There were multiple reasons. The first was a very personal reason, which is that, I wanted to have experience with sumApp.

The second [reason] is that I wanted to make networks and network mapping more accessible. I’ve been doing network mapping now for about ten years. When I first started, a lot of the tools out there were hard for people to relate to. They came out of academia. They were fantastic tools, but they talked about things like eigenvectors. People didn’t understand the technical terms and couldn’t make the connections to their work.

And so, over the last ten years I’ve been searching for more and more ways to make networks accessible because I think they’re very important, especially for non-profits that are so much dependent on their extended networks in order to survive. Having a visualization tool can give them a much better handle on what their ecosystem looks like and who they have to work with.

I wanted them to be able to see that we’ve moved to a place where there’s now a tool that’s fairly accessible, fairly easy to use, and that can give them concrete value. That’s what I was really hoping, that they would come away thinking, “Oh, this isn’t so hard” and “Wow! this gives me something that I can really use.”

The Set Up

Before the conference, Maya set up a survey in sumApp and had a few testers input data. She used the sumApp ‘live .json link’ to feed data directly into Kumu automatically, and then prepared her map views & settings in Kumu. Adam provided her with a list of the people who had signed up ahead of time for her breakout session, she loaded them into sumApp and, aside from some technical snafus, which I dealt with on my end, she was set to go.

Maya at OACBDD 2017

During the conference, Maya led a 3-hour workshop on Network Leadership and Communication. Though she had pre-loaded the early list into sumApp, she knew that some people wouldn’t show up and others would choose her session at the last minute. She prepared, so she had a paper form for new people to give her their names & email addresses as they entered, so that she could load the new names into sumApp during the activities.

At the very beginning, Adam tee’d things up by telling the group they were going to do an experiment and test a new way of mapping. Then Maya did a presentation and held a discussion about networks: what they are, why they’re important, different kinds of leadership and the roles of the network weaver – building off June Holley’s work. They talked about some of the challenges involved in a network. And then she segued into mapping with a conversation around how often it can be overwhelming to work in networks because they’re hard to visualize, they’re complex, they’re dynamic…

…but luckily, now we have tools to do that and we’re going to practice one here and now… and I introduced them to sumApp and Kumu. Then I said, “Ok, so here we go, check your emails. There’s going to be something waiting for you from sumApp.” They went in and checked and there it was, so, they started to fill in their information. It was a very simple one question survey around how they connected with folks in the room. It also asked for needs and offers: what skills or connections to they need and what offers do they have to share with others?

The Workshop

After launching the sumApp survey, Maya took the participants into the hall for some experiential activities. They started with a continuum activity, asking people to go on a continuum to the place that best represented their county board on several different scales (boundaries, flexibility, inclusivity, etc.). Then they discussed leadership styles needed for networks, which are different from the styles needed in traditional functional hierarchies, and did an activity around that. Then:

We did something I do with groups often, where we experience a network physically. We identified people to be hubs and gatekeepers and went through an activity where they could see how those roles influence a network.

During that time, people still were updating their information. We had a few new people come in for the second hour. We added them. In the meantime, you and I were frantically Slacking back and forth about “What’s happening” and “Is this going to work?”

Conference Connections at OACBDD

Meanwhile, Behind the Scenes

We encountered some serious technical difficulties. While Maya guided session participants through activities in Ohio, I was working feverishly at my desk in Minnesota. I spent most of that day, banging away in Slack and Trello with our Project Manager in California and our developers on the other side of the world as they worked through a cascade of bugs, testing, resulting new bugs, testing, clarifications, new fixes.

I was feeling guilty for letting Maya go ahead with the plan so soon after the transition, horrified at the possibility that the final map wouldn’t be there for her at the end of the session, which seemed entirely likely up until about 5 minutes before she needed it. But I kept pounding on my keyboard and Maya took the behind-the-scenes drama in stride (much better than I did) and in the end…

There were a few technical problems, as always, right? For a few people, the email wouldn’t go past their firewall, so I ended up sending it to their personal email. But overall people found it very easy to navigate sumApp. They had no problem with that. Once the emails got in their inbox they could figure it out. The only thing they had questions about was, “What’s an avatar?” and, so, I had to say, “That’s a photo. You can upload a photo if you want,” because they weren’t familiar with the term avatar.

The Map of Conference Connections

In the third hour [of the workshop], I gave them one more invitation to update their information in sumApp. At the end of the session I opened up Kumu to show them their map. By then, we had gotten the automatic feed working. The map was there and it was beautiful.

The very first thing I asked them was, “What do you notice when you look at this?” “What pops out to you?” They had some interesting observations right from the start.

Then I said, “Okay, you were able to spot the hubs and the gatekeepers when we were out in the hall, can you spot the hubs and gatekeepers here?” We started exploring hypotheses like “Why do we think Ryan is a hub?” People had various hypotheses, which we then checked with Ryan. It was [a] conversation of collectively trying to interpret ‘what does this mean?’

I had to be very sure to tell them that the map just represented the network in the room. It wasn’t the entire network. We were able to find some critical connectors, there were some hubs, there were some gatekeepers. But I had to give the caveat that [those critical connectors were] just based on who [was in the room for the session].

In the end, however, they were able to see what a network looks like. They could see how you could use the network to find skills, to find offers, and find connection points, the people who could bring them into areas that they might not know about.

In a follow-up [to the conference], I shared the link to the map with them and encouraged them to continue to use it; to search for needs and wants. And I created two short videos for them around the basics of Kumu and then how to do that search for needs and offers.

Maya also experienced something I see a lot – some people love this stuff and others are completely disinterested.

It was interesting because there were some people who left, who said, “You know what, this is not for me.” At the same time, word spread and more people showed up. I had people who came to me and said, “I love this. This is what I’ve been looking for.” So, for the people who got it, it was right on for them.

And for those who ‘get’ it, it’s not really the techno-bells and whistles that are meaningful, it’s the mental shift these tools support:

Adam was very clear on [that] he was hoping to affect a very particular change—and I think this did occur for many of the folks in the room—to stop thinking of themselves just as their county board, and gain a conception of themselves as being connected to a wider movement with all sorts of resources. [This was important] because… people get wrapped up in their day-to-day, the demands of the constituents they’re serving, and the issues in their location. Sometimes, particularly in some of these smaller areas, it can feel stressful because there’s so much depending on a small group of people. There’s stress in the larger urban areas as well, but for different reasons. One of the pieces to get that sense of ‘we’re not in this alone’ that ‘we have more connections than we know.’ They did [find] that larger sense of connection.

Adam was happy because he had been wanting to do this for years. The combination of the sumApp plus Kumu allows him to do [this]. He was delighted that it was affordable because network tools can be quite expensive.


I asked Maya she learned from the experience.

First, I learned that this can work. I learned that we can connect the dots—which is of course what networks do—but we can connect the dots between theory, a physical experiential activity with networks, and a technological platform for visualizing networks. We can bring those things together, which is powerful because it gives people who take in information [and learn] in multiple ways [many] ways in which to understand what a network is and why they should be aware of and in touch with their networks.

I thought it went beautifully and there was a lot of very positive feedback.

The tool was very easy to use. And what a gift to have that immediate feed in so that we can see the network as it develops. One day, I’d like to be able to put [the network map] up and watch it grow over time as people put in their data. We’re not there, yet. But being able to show that real-time, to be able to go from a project from start to finish in three hours was amazing.

What I would do differently? Obviously, I would have some of the kinks worked out. There were a few moments of heart palpitations, but that all worked out.

Because I was presenting, it was hard for me to monitor data. I would bring an assistant or have someone there to enter emails and check handwriting. I asked to people to write clearly, but of course there were still some scribbles that I had no idea [how to decipher]. You talked about collecting information via Google form. I might do that next time instead, as opposed to relying on handwriting.

And, if possible, pre-populate. And that’s not always—at a conference like the one I was at you don’t know who’s going to be in the room so you can’t—but if I was doing this with an intact group where I knew who the members would be, I would have that all pre-loaded so that I could simply send out the information and go with it from there.

An Antidote to Despair: Connection

Maya’s experiment also gave us both a very real and personal experience of what a network awareness and sense of connection can provide.

I have to give the tip of the hat to you, because what went well was the amazing amount of support you gave. I have never felt so supported in this kind of work before and it gave me real confidence in the tool that you were there to help and troubleshoot.

That comment left me contemplating the beautiful irony of my awareness the of how close to failure we were, while she was able to focus on the group and let me have her back. Memories came to me of examples from my own life, revealing how enabling and powerful simple shared awareness and attention can be—even without material support, and even without successful outcomes—the difference it makes—how much more one can accomplish—simply from knowing one isn’t in it alone. I mentioned how that sense of support is core to our purpose in making network maps.

Yes, yes. Having someone who knows something about what you’re going through. Someone who is working on it as well, who may not even get it all right but at least is trying. It really helps combat that sense of isolation. I think it helps counter despair, which is something that, unfortunately, I think there is a lot of in the world right now.

It reminds me of of going to the Women’s March in DC last January. [I went] there with this sense of despair, a sense of ‘our world is falling apart’, and then [felt] buoyed by, lifted up by, all of these hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t going to give up, who were in this fight.

One of the quotes that I heard around then was that “action is the antidote to despair.” I also think it’s connection. Having those connections, whether it’s  hundreds of thousands at a DC march, or Christine on Slack, or county boards knowing that they’ve got people watching their back, is so powerful and can help keep us going.

I asked if there was anything more that she would like to add. Her comment:

This is worth trying. It works. Networks [are] so much more real for people when they can see it in front of them. I would encourage others to give people that opportunity to see [their network], which this combination of tools really allows you to do. I would love to [see it become] a regular part of conference [experiences].

Christine Capra is the founder of Greater than the SumChristine’s background in data-gathering / evaluation / visualization, combined with a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership and a fervent passion for social change fuel her ongoing drive to discover and develop tools that can help others turn their social change visions into realities.

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