Reflection on evidence mapping workshop

By Likhwa Ncube, part-time researcher at CEE Joburg, hosted by the Africa Centre for Evidence 

ace-evidence-mapping-training

Evidence mapping training hosted by the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at the University of Johannesburg on 22-24 August 2018.

Recently, I attended a three-day evidence mapping training workshop run by the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at the University of Johannesburg. Evidence mapping is increasingly attracting a lot of attention in the area of evidence-informed decision-making as a research method that provides thematic collections of evidence structured around a framework which schematically represents the types of interventions and outcomes of relevance to a particular sector (Snilstveit et al, 2015). Below, I share things that learned about the use of evidence mapping for decision-making.

1.       We all map evidence, everyday

It turns out that evidence maps are a very common part of our daily lives, or at least the underlying principles of evidence maps are. We compare different types of evidence against each other and choose action or inaction based on the evidence we’ve gathered. For example, before placing a best on who will win the English Premier League soccer games, most sensible people first compare different forms of evidence to justify a decision on which team to bet for. We consider the form of the players of the team that we want to bet on, the opposing team, which players are is injured, which players are on a yellow card, and whether the team we want to bet on is playing on home ground or away.

These principles of reviewing and consolidating different types of evidence are no different to developing evidence maps for the policy or practice arena. Drawing from the betting example above, combining results from many different pieces of research evidence supports and informs decisions in a better way than decisions based on a single piece of research evidence: the process of grouping together various pieces of research evidence is called evidence synthesis. And evidence maps are a powerful tool to support evidence synthesis. The weighing and grouping together of evidence underlies the methodology behind evidence maps, which enhance the accessibility of vast amounts of evidence in how they visually represent the evidence using bubbles and donuts, for example.

2.       Key steps involved in evidence mapping

Intuitively, the idea of a map for me was very far removed from bubbles and donuts. My background in maps was informed by maps and map reading from high school geography. In attending this training workshop, I was very excited to see how the idea of evidence fits into my pre-knowledge of maps from geography. I quickly realised that in as much as we were using the same word “maps” my geography background was not going to be that helpful here.

On the first day, the facilitator introduced the steps involved in creating an evidence map. The first and arguably the most important step stuck with me the most. We were told that when creating your evidence map, clarifying the research question and its scope comes first. A grip of the research problem, its parameters, what the question seeks to answer, its importance, relevance and limitations sets the evidence map creation-process into motion. This for me was clue number one that I had to lose my high school geography background.

I found the language of coding and its application to the creation of evidence maps daunting and technical. On the data extraction step we ran the process on a review software with in-built mapping capability: EPPI-Reviewer 4. This crucial step, if not done properly, might prove challenging to comprehend and to master all the intricate processes involved. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the EPPI-Reviewer 4 software first for this step. And no – codes here don’t relate to the latitude or longitude of a specific map location. Just in case you were wondering.

Geography maps and evidence maps answer fundamentally different questions. Typical types of research questions that evidence maps inform and/or answer: what works? How x works? What research exists about x? And the application of technology is central in responding to these questions in evidence maps. Although both sets of maps can be very useful to guide one where to go.

3.       Was the whole process worth the trouble?

The technical components for evidence mapping mentioned above must not scare anyone away. I attended the three-day workshop and on day three, I emerged with my group’s completed practice evidence map. A disclaimer on my technical talents – this was my first software-tech engagement. In the fewest words, I am terrible with technology. Despite this, I sat for the workshop, engaged and on the final day, presented a completed practice map. The moral of this: if I can do it, then anyone can.

The importance of evidence mapping as a research tool cannot be overstated. Evidence maps play a vital role in the research and decision-making space to support policy-making, to demonstrate research priorities and gaps, and to manage knowledge as a repository of evidence on a subject easily accessible in times of decision-making.

I am glad I attended the workshop. I am now handy with a very important researching tool – priceless!

This blog is co-posted by CEE Joburg