When we started work on Awesome News Taskforce Detroit, I knew that getting a diverse group of people involved from the get-go was our No. 1 priority. In the case of Detroit, that diversity must include not just gender and racial diversity, but also geographical, class and organizational differences as well.

As an experiment, I asked all of the people applying to be trustees to give us their ZIP code so we could quickly identify if we were having trouble attracting geographical diversity. Now, near the end of our recruiting process, I am able to generate this useful visualization:

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Making this was dead easy because there is a vibrant ecosystem of tools for creating your own maps about physical geography. When it came to visualizing and sharing organizational geography, however, there is a surprising dearth of tools available to the lay-organizer. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more recent widely adopted advancement on this front since the Rolodex?

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When newcomers land in a city, they have maps to situate themselves and locate their necessities. It shows them where things are and where things could be. Maps show not only what is, but also what is not yet, which is incredibly valuable for entrepreneurs, innovators, and community builders.

When a newcomer to the world of doing good wants to know the landscape, however, the standard practice seems to be finding a seasoned veteran in the field and asking about who they know, then following the branches of those leads selectively and recursively. This system relies on the immediate memories and dot-connecting abilities of the organizers that serve as nodes.

It works, but it’s fragile at best and vulnerable, exclusive, and simply inefficient for getting a bird’s eye view of the whole system at worst. What we need is something like professor Xavier’s Cerebro, a powerful tool for finding other potential allies.

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Back in Detroit, I started using a mindmapping tool, MindNode, just to start keeping track of the organizations I had approached, and others that I had heard of. I grouped these roughly by field (technology, arts, media, etc.) and annotated them with whether I had met and connected with the groups.

When I started working with a community organizer, this map, crude and information-poor as it was, facilitated a conversation about who we had already talked to and where we needed to focus our efforts in a way that was surprisingly effortless. We moved to a version hosted in the cloud, MindMeister, and she helped me add to it while we worked to recruit trustees.

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Similarly, when new people approach me to ask about Detroit, I just share the map with them. Incomplete as it is, many are surprised by the variety and quantity of organizations making efforts to improve the city.

One of the biggest complaints I heard from organizations in Detroit about the newcomers was that they didn’t know who they weren’t talking to. It is easy enough to go to a place and believe that you have met everyone important if no one ever mentions the other players in the game. With just one click, this map goes a long way toward fixing that.

I’m still in disbelief that I haven’t found a (more) standardized format for sharing one’s knowledge about the organizational landscape of a community, and that public sharing of this knowledge is not a common practice. This kind of information silo makes sense in the context of competition among non-profits for limited funding, but seems so archaic in the age of the internet. If you’re an organizer, try this exercise and compare notes with a friend! Let’s figure out the framework for building maps to chart the intangible landscapes of our neighborhoods.

Image of tourists with map courtesy of Flickr user Ed Yourdon and used under the Creative Commons license.