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Data Visualization - Finding Patterns in Social Networks

Friday, December 9, 2011

Here's an old blog post dated Jan. 28, 2011 that I wanted to share with everyone on Dashboard Insight.

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I reconnected with an old colleague of mine, Professor Rob Cross from the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, a couple of days ago. His work involves visually analyzing social networks. It starts with gathering data on how connected people were with each other and then visualizing this in a network diagram. For example, a network diagram may represent the number of times a person would speak with another person.

Here’s an example what this may look like visually.

Social Network Diagram

Now, this isn't necessarily a compelling story, but there are patterns that emerge if you look at enough networks. A really interesting shape that forms is the following:

Social Network Diagram - Dumbbell Pattern

I've simplified the network to exemplify the shape. The people who are represented in the orange circle connect two distinct groups together. In the real world, these two groups may be the Director of Marketing and the Director of Sales for an organization. By recognizing how this social network is shaped, it's clear that these two people are critical in operations. More importantly, it presents a clear risk if one of those people leave the company.

Another interesting pattern that emerges, are appendages. Here's an example of an appendage (outlier) pattern.

Social Network Diagram - Appendage Pattern

Again, I simplified the diagram to exemplify the pattern. Notice how the person in yellow only communicates with one person. In an organization, this raises the question of why is this person so isolated from everyone else.  Does the person avoid working with others? Do people try to avoid the person? These questions are important from an efficiency and work culture perspective.

I've presented some interesting concepts here that I picked up from the seminar Professor Cross gave but to get a true sense of his field of study, I strongly recommend visiting his site and taking his seminars.

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