Graphical Conflict Mapping Using PowerPoint, Prezi, and Websites

By Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess

Co-Directors, Beyond Intractability Project,
Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, (303) 492-1635, Email
Copyright © 2013 by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado
Individual Maps Copyrighted by the Authors

For us, conflict mapping is often a critical, first step in teaching our students how to effectively analyze and more constructively respond to a broad range of complex, large-scale, intractable conflicts. For years, our efforts to teach conflict mapping took the form of a conventional paper assignment based on Wehr's and Hockner and Wilmot's conflict mapping strategies. More recently, and, in large part, in response to the ideas presented in Peter Coleman's The Five Percent and Rob Ricigliano's Making Peace Last, we have been asking students to map conflicts graphically. Among the many advantages of this approach is that it does a better job of forcing students to consider all of a conflict's critical elements and not just ramble on with "CIA factbook-style" essays that tend to miss a lot of the conflict dynamics that our field recognizes as being so important.

In asking students to do these maps, we have resisted the temptation to provide them with too much of a tightly constrained format. Our fear was that this would produce a "coloring book effect" in which students just "filled in the blanks," rather than really try to understand what was important to map and why. In general, we have been pleased with the creativity and thoughtfulness that our students have put into these maps (at both the senior undergraduate and graduate student levels).

Still, as we continued to work with the mapping assignment, we realized that it would be highly desirable to restructure the assignment so that it could include more information yet present that information in ways that there were less susceptible to becoming a bewildering, "spaghetti-diagram." This led us to the obvious conclusion that we ought to find a way to take advantage of more of the powerful and easy-to-use features embedded in today's presentation and website creation software. We thought that, through the creative use of these programs, students could construct more sophisticated conflict maps with advanced features such as:

  • The ability to portray a sequence of events as a series of slides that essentially put the conflict maps in motion,
  • Zoom capabilities that allow student map-makers to show macro-scale conflict features and then zoom into a more in-depth presentation of specific aspects of the conflict (including those that are the immediate focus of student's project or intervention planning effort),
  • Hyperlinked references that allow students to provide instant access to sources and additional, more detailed, information,
  • Sequenced map presentations (with optional audio tracks) that allow students to guide readers (and listeners) through a step-by-step explanation of a map and its significance,
  • Cross-linking capabilities that allow the readers to skip around a map in accordance with their own interests,
  • Embedded multimedia and pictures that bring the human dimension of a map to life, and
  • Text-heavy slides that essentially merge essay and graphical approaches to conflict mapping.

This spring, as our first attempt at this kind of advanced mapping, we laid out the general goals of mapping to participants in our capstone Senior Seminar for Peace and Conflict Studies Program for which Ricigliano's Making Peace Last was the primary text. We then allowed students to use whatever technology they preferred to explain their conflict. All we gave them was a very bare-bones PowerPoint template that showed one possible way of constructing such a map. (Over the course of the semester, we also had lots of opportunities for students to ask questions and exchange ideas about how, exactly, to construct these maps.)

Adjusting for the fact that the undergraduate students in these classes were, inevitably, working from a somewhat more limited base of knowledge and experience, we were very pleased with what they were able to produce. We think that the success of this experiment demonstrates this kind of conflict mapping is something that is accessible to the sizable fraction of those involved in difficult conflict situations. (There is, of course, still a lot that could be done to improve the way in which we teach people how to do this kind of mapping.)

In this class, students were able to successfully employ three very different mapping technologies (which are listed below along with links to some of the better maps that students created).

Although the earlier maps were not as sophisticated in terms of linking and zooming, some were amazingly creative—for instance one was built with the Moscow subway system as a template. (When we learned that our students were pursuing that, our first inclination was to say "no," that will never work. But we decided to let them figure that out themselves — and instead, they came up with a very interesting and revealing graphic. It isn't consistent with Coleman's or Ricigliano's image of a conflict map, but it shows a lot of the same elements!

We think that this approach is of great value for those who go through the exercise of actually building the maps. We also think that the maps can provide a very powerful mechanism for explaining the essential elements of a conflict to the various parties to a conflict. We believe that, by giving disputants a more sophisticated understanding of the problems they face, they could be persuaded to support more constructive approaches to conflict transformation. Also, actively involving members of a conflicted community in the development, critical review, and refinement of such maps could yield substantial additional benefits.

We also view this is just the beginning. There are all sorts of ways in which this basic strategy might be further developed. Among the next steps that we envision are the following:

  • Development of an increasingly diverse and sophisticated library of conflict maps using different technologies to give future mappers a variety of starting points for their own work,
  • Development of "starter" templates and primers on how to use the various software packages to create these maps most efficiently,
  • Checklists of elements that mappers should think about including for conflicts of various types,
  • A library of links which can be used to connect different elements of the maps to Beyond Intractability and other knowledge base systems with information needed to understand specific conflict problems and possible solutions, and
  • Use of Camtasia or similar programs to capture, in video form, the author's presentation of their maps.

Still, the most important next step involves strengthening aspects of the mapping process that make it easier for mapmakers to use the technology to develop specific intervention strategies.