Visualizing what connects us: Social Network Analysis (SNA) in M&E

by Anne Laesecke (IREX) and Danielle de García (Social Impact). This post also appears on the Social Impact blog and  the IREX blog.

SNA, or Social Network Analysis, continues to gain momentum in the M&E space. This year at MERL Tech, we held an SNA 101 session, giving a quick-and-dirty overview of what it is, how it can contribute to M&E, and useful tips and tools for conducting an SNA. If you missed it, here’s what you need to know:

What is SNA?

SNA is a way to analyze social systems through relationships. Analyzing and visualizing networks can reveal critical insights for understanding relationships between organizations, supply chains; social movements; and/or between individuals. It’s a very versatile tool which can be used throughout the program cycle to measure things like trust and social capital, information flows, resources, collaboration, and disease spread, among other things.

SNA uses a different vocabulary than other types of analyses. For example, the relationships we measure are called ties or links, and the entities that make up a network are called nodes or actors. These can be organizations, people, or even whole networks themselves. We can study nodes more closely by looking at their attributes – things that characterize them (like demographic information), and we can learn more about how nodes interact and cluster by studying communities or modalities within networks. Various measures of the roles nodes play in a network, as well as measures that characterize the networks themselves, can reveal a lot about the systems and hidden relationships at play. For example, we can determine who has the most ties with other actors; who is relatively cut off from the network, or who is connected to the most well-connected actors.

Why would you use SNA for M&E?

The term “social network analysis” often triggers associations with social media, but SNA uses data from a variety of platforms (including but not limited to social media!). For instance, SNA can identify key influencers in systems – important for programs that rely on thinking politically. SNA can also be a useful tool in processing big data with applications for cybersecurity as well as creating biological and epidemiological projections. Beyond looking at networks of individuals, SNA can explore relationships with concepts through analysis of qualitative data and concept mapping. It can also look at organizational risks and processes (think about comparing an organizational chart with who people actually go to within an organization for information).

How do you do SNA?

Conducting SNA mostly follows the same procedure as other analysis.

  1. Determine your purpose and questions. What decisions do you need to make based on the data you get? Who is your audience and what do they need to know? Answering these questions can help you decided what you are trying to measure and how.
  2. Collect your data. SNA can incorporate lots of different data forms, including customized surveys and interviews asking actors in your network about the links they have, external data such as census information or other public records to further inform attributes or triangulate your custom data; and mapping of key locations or concepts. One thing to consider while conducting an SNA – data cleaning is usually a heavier lift than for other types of analysis.
  3. Crunch those numbers. SNA uses matrices to calculate various measures – from types of centrality to network density and beyond. Lucky for us, there are plenty of tools that take on both the analysis and visualization portions of SNA. However, another consideration as you analyze your data is that network data is often not generalizable in the same way as some statistical analysis. If you miss a key node in the network, you may miss an entire portion that is only linked through that node.
  4. Visualize the network. Network visualizations are one of the most distinctive features of SNA and can be incredibly useful as tools to engage partners about your findings. There is a wealth of analysis and visualization tools that can help you do this. We created a worksheet that outlines several, but a few of the most popular are UCINet, Gephi, and NodeXL.
  5. Interpret your results. You now have a beautiful graph that shows what nodes are important in your network. So what? How does it relate to your program? Your interpretation should answer the questions around the purpose of your analysis, but beyond interpretation can serve to improve your programming. Often, SNA results can help make projections for program sustainability based on who key players are and who can continue championing work, or projecting where trends seem to be going and anticipating activities around those areas.

Conclusions and resources

We barely scratched the surface of what SNA can do and there are so many more applications! Some great resources to learn more are the SNA TIG of the American Evaluation Association, Stephen Borgatti’s course website on SNA, and a site of his dedicated completely to designing surveys for SNA.

4 thoughts on “Visualizing what connects us: Social Network Analysis (SNA) in M&E

  1. Very interesting blog, indeed SNA is just making its first steps in M&E world. One challenge though which occurs with SNA is translating the results for programme team members in order to be applied in decision making. The measures that SNA uses (density, centralization, etc) could be quite difficult to grasp without prior knowledge of SNA methodology. Would be interested to hear how others have used SNA in M&E..

    1. Thanks, Ana! Yes, I’ve found the translation of the visualization and analysis into the “so what?” element is often the most important step! Happy to chat more about how I’ve used SNA in M&E so far- with civil society and media organizations in Serbia and Liberia to young leaders all over the African continent!

    2. Ana, I agree! One strategy that I find works well is to stay away from the SNA terms for measures and instead use more descriptive phrases. I find it’s also helpful to start with a network visualization for stakeholders to review and discuss, bringing in the more nuanced measures throughout the conversation rather than all at once in a report. I’m also happy to chat more!

  2. One way of getting past the “So what?” response to a visualisation is to ask audience, before presentation of visualisation, what they expect the visualisation to look like, and why so, along with some prompts about possibly relevant dimensions of the network structure that they can think about.AKA seek participants prior hypotheses re network structure.

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