Systems Mapping for Storytelling: Not everything is a linear flowchart

This month for Innovation and Focus we tested systems mapping as a storytelling format with Kumu. Rachel Thomas spoke with Kumu’s Head of Community Engagement & Customer Support Alex Vipond about systems mapping and how the tool can be used in newsrooms for journalism. 

Alex Vipond

Alex Vipond started using Kumu as a way to visualize and explain systems while he was in college at Northeastern University in Boston before joining Kumu as an employee. Photo courtesy of Alex Vipond

Thomas: Can you share with me a little bit about you and your experience with Kumu?

Vipond: I head up Kumu’s community engagement and customer support. I actually used Kumu for four years before I joined the company. I became an expert in Kumu and that’s how I became hired to join the team and help with customer support and client work. But I really got started with Kumu when I was in school at Northeastern University in Boston as a teaching assistant for the university’s Social Impact Lab. I helped a professor bring systems thinking into a course on strategic philanthropy, which is thinking about where philanthropic dollars go, what kind of impact they have, what kind of people they affect, where they come from and the ethical challenges that come with that. The professor needed a tool to map this complexity out. We worked with a bunch of different tools and Kumu rose to the top as the most user friendly and had good storytelling features like Kumu’s presentation feature where you can make interactive slideshows with your map. 

Thomas: How often were you using Kumu before you joined as an employee?

Vipond: When I was a teaching assistant I was helping other students with the tool, basically being customer support for twenty to thirty people. The class had a ten thousand dollar grant to give away to various nonprofits. The first semester they made maps to tell stories about how certain problems were affecting people in Boston, opportunities to step in and solve those problems and how the grant could make a meaningful difference. The second semester involved site visits to area nonprofits and selection of grant winners. It was interesting from a storytelling perspective because students were wrestling with the idea of who they’re going to serve, what the ethical implications of them making that choice are and if it would be structured to help larger or smaller nonprofits. For other classes I used Kumu as a presentation tool and as a personal tool to think about careers and problems I wanted to solve. One of the bigger projects I used Kumu for was my final undergraduate research project on waste management in rural areas of the developing world and how you can use composting to improve it. The map explained how that would work, the benefits, how it would improve lives and what science and experiments need to be done before that is possible etc. It became a pretty complex system in the end. 

Thomas: How can Kumu be used as a storytelling tool?

Vipond: It’s a two-part answer. Kumu is a great tool for putting together maps and presentations. But the flip side is also new ways to think about complexity and how to approach complex problems differently. This allows us to tell more streamlined and coherent stories about possible solutions that are out there. Systems thinking in general is hearing someone talk about a complex problem, thinking about the main factors and influencers and any feedback loops and then translating that into a general problem solving language. With this you know how the problem changes when certain situations happen and the effects. Kumu gets this thinking out of your head and into a format that you can show to someone else and is easy to understand. Kumu’s presentation feature can make this easier. Another feature called focus lets you start from one node in the map or story and expand out from there. Not everything is a straight linear timeline, not everything is a perfect linear flowchart. 

Thomas: Does the user have to have an understanding of systems thinking to use Kumu?

Vipond: I think people come to it from different directions. Often people make maps without expertise in systems thinking and the result of what they made is something a seasoned systems thinker would look at and think that the creator was a systems thinker. That’s not the case. It’s how their brain works. They used circles and lines and grasped feedback loops really quickly without formal training to do it. But more often people who study systems thinking and have expertise are looking for new tools and find Kumu to create maps rather than making them by hand. There are whole industries that still only use pen and paper so we try to help out with that and make the process easier. 

Thomas: What advice do you have for a journalist or newsroom who is interested in visualizing with tools like Kumu but may not be familiar with systems thinking?

Vipond: There are some resources out there. There is a +Acumen course called Systems Practice by Robert Ricigliano, an expert in complex solving probleming. The course takes students through the basics of systems thinking and the basics of Kumu where they’ll make their own Kumu maps along the way. It’s free and eleven weeks long.

Thomas: What doesn’t work in Kumu? Are there certain stories that Kumu is not suited best for?

Vipond: I haven’t seen a story yet that couldn’t be told some way with Kumu. But I would say stories that are very input-output and not focused on the complexity of a situation such as a solution that has already been found. Articles that are straightforward can be mapped out in Kumu, but they won’t be as interesting because they would be flat with straight lines, one point leading to the next one. From a reader’s perspective that doesn’t add much value and they could just read it. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity 

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