The need to navigate UBC’s complex web of research partnerships has sprung a first-of-its-kind project that could help a new UBC professor – and the rest of the world – visualize the strengths of the university’s enormous research enterprise and identify new opportunities for collaboration.
“UBC is by far the largest institution I have ever been a part of,” says Jinhua Zhao, an assistant professor from Qingdao, China, who came to UBC last year after earning his PhD in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and working at Transport for London in the U.K.
With a joint appointment between the Department of Civil Engineering and the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), Zhao asked colleagues to explain the difference between a department and a school when he first arrived at UBC. To help, they drew a tree-like diagram to articulate reporting structures. But that only told part of the story.
“In reality, people interact with each other much more fluidly across departmental boundaries,” says Zhao. “In addition to research, scholars are also connected with one another through brainstorming, co-teaching a course, or co-supervising students – active agents who explore and broker connections among faculties,” says Zhao. “These relationships are rarely reflected on an org chart but they speak directly to how knowledge is created and sustained.”
While most recently popularized by Facebook and Twitter, the method of social network analysis has been around for decades and is widely applied in sociology, management, public health, geography and social psychology, says Zhao. “For example, scholars once re-drew the regional map of Great Britain based on its telecommunications records and the while the resulting ‘map’ coincided with some regional boundaries, it also revealed strong cross-regional connections between areas currently divided by administrative borders.”
“Since knowledge creation is often at the intersections between disciplines, re-drawing UBC along the lines of knowledge creation could help us understand the core strengths of UBC – established clusters of researchers who are highly connected and ‘glue’ the community together; the emerging clusters of researchers who originate and spread new ideas across campus; and their collective local, national and international connections,” says SCARP Director Penny Gurstein, who has joined forces with Zhao to launch a pilot project to do just that.
Zhao, Gurstein and fellow SCARP researcher Tony Dorcey came up with a survey that, in 10 questions and requiring five minutes to complete, aims to elucidate both research and teaching collaborations of UBC faculty members – how they are initiated, the length and depth of the interactions, their geographic vicinity, and respective expertise. The pilot project, called Mapping UBC’s Collaborative Knowledge Network, was launched in April at Civil Engineering and SCARP. Zhao is also working with a team of planning and computer science students to create interactive maps to visualize these relationships. When complete, the maps will be made available to the public and serve as a tool for everyone to explore UBC and its scholars.
“People change, and so do their networks,” says Zhao. “With these interactive maps, we can zoom in and trace the evolution of individual networks, project our scholarship onto the globe, or search by expertise or geographic area.
“A university builds upon its scholars but sparkles with the interactions among them,” says Zhao. “And while the stars shine in their own right, the constellations tell us even more compelling stories.”
The project has received support from both John Hepburn, Vice President Research and International and Stephen Owen, Vice President of External, Legal and Community Relations, who agreed to invite UBC scholars to participate once the project launches campus-wide this month.
“We already know from various independent indicators that our research is of the highest caliber and one of the reasons for this research excellence is interdisciplinary collaborations,” says Hepburn. “This project will provide us with a clear and dynamic road map for prioritizing and supporting excellence while pointing toward new directions and opportunities.”
To learn more about the Collaborative Knowledge Network, examples of interactive social network maps, or to fill out the survey, visit: www.knowledgenetwork.ubc.ca
Simulated interactive maps of UBC’s Knowledge Network
Related topics: learning