Charting the mysterious seas of INASP’s online community

Thoughts on my INASP Internship

Joseph Scarlett-Smith was an intern at INASP during July and August of 2013. His work during this time focus on mapping the INASP online community. 

This summer I had the pleasure of doing a two-month internship with INASP at their offices in Oxford.  My task was seemingly straightforward: I was to create a ‘map’ of INASP’s online community.  This post briefly outlines the work I did for INASP over my internship, and what made it both so rewarding and challenging.

Venturing into Uncharted Territory

INASP’s network covers a wide range of websites, social media accounts, mailing lists, discussion lists and blogs. It was quickly apparent that mapping the online community was going to be an extremely intricate, but also extremely interesting task.  So in an effort to capture some meaningful data and a strong snapshot of the online community, we focused on a few key networks: the two main websites INASP maintains, two Facebook pages, three Twitter accounts, the ‘Practising Development’ blog, an online discussion group with over 1000 members, and a mailing list with over 3000 subscribers.

Drawing the Map

Given the size and complexity of the online community I was faced with two primary challenges.  The first was conceptual – INASP reaches people in virtually every country on earth to some extent, who can we say are important members of this group?  And how can this huge group of people be broken down so that it can be better understood?  The second major problem was empirical – what data do we have on each of these online platforms and does this allow us to meaningfully compare them?

In the end I adopted a two-step approach to mapping the online community.  In the first stage explored to what extent a clear understanding of the online community could be produced using readily available data sources.  This involved getting data from many different online providers (for example, Google Analytics for the website and blog to Follower Wonk for Twitter) and seeing what kind of picture could be drawn of the online community.  It quickly became clear that whilst an unbelievable quantity of data was available for each platform, they were only partially comparable.  The big learning from the first part of my internship was, therefore, that the whilst the stats available online were certainly useful for understanding each platform in isolation, they could not be used to construct a complete picture of the online community as a whole.

The second stage of the project approached mapping the online community from a different perspective.  If the data we could get online were no good, we would have to find our own.  With the help o my supervisor I sent out an online survey to over 3000 members of INASP’s online community.  Using this data it was possible to gain a much richer understanding not only of who and where people were engaging with INASP, but also how they were engaging with us, and for what purpose.

Overall several aspects of INASP’s online community became clear.  For example, certain platforms were predominantly used by individuals in the ‘Global South’ (these included the website and AuthorAID), whilst other were primarily used in the North (the best example being Twitter).  There was also a relatively clear divide in the community as to why they engaged with INASP online.  One part of the community was mainly seeking to access and consume information, whilst another part was looking to communicate and forge relations with other members of the online community.

Two Months Well Spent

Perhaps the best single aspect of an internship at INASP is that you are encouraged to independently pursue your task.  This meant that, whilst help from my supervisor was always close at hand, I had to develop my own approach to answering the question.  Challenging as the task at hand was, it was extremely intellectually engaging and rewarding.  I was also afforded an invaluable opportunity to put into practice the quantitative and qualitative research skills I have developed through my academic career.  Ultimately, gaining a complete understanding of INASP’s online community was beyond the scope of my two month internship.  But even though there are many elements of the online community that remain unclear, at the very least I hope I can now say INASP has much better knowledge of what it does not know about its online community!

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