“This software makes the powerful research method Cognitive Mapping much simpler”

In this series of interviews we show what contribution projects can make to FAIR research IT. The research teams of the projects have received a grant from the FAIR Research IT Innovation Fund.

Cognitive Mapping allows you to create in-depth analyses and comparisons of people’s ideas. Previously, the method was complex to use but the new software CognitiveMapr changes that. A few clicks is all that is needed to upload the data, show relations between concepts in a visual semantic network and to execute analyses in an automated way. This makes this research method more transparent, more reliable and more accessible for researchers, policy makers and professionals alike.

Prof. Femke van Esch. Photo: Annemiek van der Kuil

We live in interesting times: (international) crises are piling up, good leadership seems more urgent than ever and the role and voice of citizens are under discussion. How convenient then that these topics are right up the street of Femke van Esch, professor of European Governance and Leadership of the European Union at the Utrecht University School of Governance of the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. She studies such themes with Cognitive Mapping (CM), a method for mapping people’s beliefs and reasoning. “Most of my research consists of analysing the ideas of financial leaders. I do this by first encoding texts such as their speeches: what do they say, what concepts do they link, why? I use the codes to make a ‘cognitive map’: a visual representation of all causal and normative relations (‘edges’) between concepts (‘nodes’). This allows me to make a more profound analysis of viewpoints and compare ideas. Or check if the idea of a manager corresponds with the final policy. So this method enables you to create and test theories on matters such as leadership and crises, but it can also help with policy making.”

The software is web-based, freely accessible and does not require technical knowledge

Prof. Femke van Esch

The beneftis of Cognitive Mapping

Although there are various techniques for text analysis, Femke van Esch says that CM has some major benefits. “Thanks to thematic text analysis you discover for what people talk about for instance,  but you have a limited insight into the connections between concepts. The same goes for automatic text analysis: in that case you have lots of quantitative data, but less profound insight. Discourse analysis helps you to dig deeper in the subject, but because this is time-consuming, you can only compare a few cases. Sentiment analysis tells you that something is positive or negative, but not the reason why.” CM is in between all these methods. You not only see what is being talked about and whether it is positive or negative, but you also see the argumentation behind points of view. “Moreover you can make a good comparison of cases because it is a very structured analysis method: you always analyse in the same manner. There is also mathematics behind that network approach. You can use it to do the maths. So you can give a narrative analysis as well as quantitative results. That makes it a very powerful method.”

What is FAIR?

Utrecht University stands for open science. FAIR data is a part of that. The FAIR principles are a series of instructions for researchers, aimed at storing and publishing research data in the best possible way. The acronym FAIR stands for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. For you, as a researcher, FAIR has several  benefits. To make it easier for you, we have developed FAIR Cheatsheets at Utrecht University. There is also the Publishing and Sharing Data Guide.


A FAIR idea

Despite these advantages only a few people used CM. “People thought it a good method, but did not use it themselves: too complicated. A shame. Also for my own research I needed a better way to work with the method. For instance, the method was not exactly FAIR because you had to do the analyses manually. That is error-prone and not transparent.” So a few years ago she got an idea: can we make this method more accessible, more transparent, more reliable and less error-prone with the help of new techniques? “I was not familiar with the term FAIR yet, but that was exactly what I wanted.” A friend from the IT world developed software for her in his spare time. But more was needed to develop it further and to make it suitable for wider use. During the Covid pandemic, Femke van Esch followed a course in R (open source software program).  “I thought: this will take me a long way. But then again: I was working on my own and I am no programming expert. Besides, there are not many people in my field who can work with R, so it needed to be even easier. Then I saw the call for the fund.

Femke van Esch working with Cognitive Mapping. Photo: Annemiek van der Kuil

Workshop R & data

Do you know that RDM Support offers various workshops and training programmes in which you can participate? For instance, in the free workshop R & data you learn the basics of programming language R in a single day. This language is very suitable for data processing, visualization and statistical analysis. Prior knowledge or programming experience is not required! Please register here.

Cognitive Mapping Software for Dummies

After her application was granted, Femke van Esch started looking for people who could technically realise her idea. She heard that the bachelor programme of Computing Science was taking on clients for graduation projects. Thanks to the grant, she was able to apply. “The past six months I spent working with eight Computing Science students on our Cognitive Mapping Software for Dummies. The result is a great product: CognitiveMapr.” As a result, CM has become much more FAIR, much to her delight. “To me, accessibility was the largest objective and motivation, because I noticed that people really liked my method but did not use it. The software is web-based, freely accessible and does not require technical knowledge.’ You simply enter data, after which the semantic network appears. Suppose you analyse a speech by Mark Rutte. You will see what he has often said (thicker dot), what he thinks is good or bad (green or red) and what consequences or causes he thinks something has, according to him (arrows). “You see the whole narrative analysis visually represented. There are also tables containing all kinds of information about relations and concepts.” Because the software automates the analysis process, you save a lot of time and make fewer mistakes. “In addition, there are extra features. Take for instance the ‘children function’: you get a visual representation of all factors that, according to this person, lead to a certaom consequence. Such as: x, y and z together lead to economic growth. The nice part is: the students came up with this feature themselves. It really was a co-creation.”

The nice part is: the students came up with this feature themselves. It really was a co-creation.

Prof. Femke van Esch

Two ways to work with CognitiveMapr

Those who want to work with CognitiveMapr can collect data in two ways. You can use existing texts, for instance from databases or websites. ‘These texts need to be coded: you extract all mentioned causal or normative statements. There are good code books to do that, such as the Cognitive Mapping Coding Manual. Next you perform the analysis which has been simplified.” The other way of data collection: having people draw the cognitive maps themselves, so the semantic networks.  “You give them some concepts or let them choose themselves, like the word ‘Europe’. For instance in a focus group or by means of a list of questions. With the help of these you have them draw maps, so that you can analyse their ideas. We also have software to let people create these maps. This way you do not have to code texts, you have your data ready right away.” According to Femke van Esch also this ‘bottom-up’ method is very powerful. “CM has much added value compared to questionnaires. With only five concepts in a network you can say so much more. You give people a lot of options to tell their own story. CM shows relationships you would not discover otherwise.”

Many applications

CognitiveMapr is interesting for a wide and international audience. Femke van Esch: “For instance, a researcher from Zagreb uses CM to analyse parliamentary debates about Europe and Croatian identity. So she does research into individual leaders but debates, that can also be done. And together with a colleague we used it to study reports of the European Commission.’ Although CM has been developed in the domain of international relations and political psychology, an increasing number of researchers are using the method. “For instance in environmental Sciences and organisational studies. It is also interesting for humanities scholars doing narrative or discourse analyses. It helps them to do their analyses on a larger scale and in a more structured way.” Also policy makers and professionals may profit. “A parent told me at the presentations by computing science students:  I work in healthcare, this is a great method to use with patients. In this way people see all kinds of possibilities for their own questions.” Finally, CM is suitable as public opinion tool, an application Femke van Esch uses herself. “A major project to question citizens as part of the European selections will start soon. We will be with our laptops at Festival Europa (in Dutch only), an event full of culture, science and journalism that revolves around Europe and the European elections. Via cognitive maps we let people have their say about what they think the role of citizens in Europe should be. We use this as data collection for research, but also give it an impact dimension, we let people send a “cognitive postcard” to Brussels. We also want to communicate this to policy makers.”

Regular research applications are about content, never about tools for research.

Prof. Femke van Esch

Tool thanks to the fund

Photo: Annemiek van der Kuil

The Innovation Fund has meant a lot for Femke van Esch. “I have wanted to do this for such a long time. Regular research applications are about content, never with tools for research. It is a unique fund. I could never have done this otherwise.“ Femke van Esch hopes that more researchers learn about the FAIR Research IT programme. “I hope that more people, from all faculties, discover that these options exist, applying for such a fund, creating such a tool, and how helpful that could be. And learn that you don’t need to be tech-savvy to make sure other people build what you need.”

In the coming months some students will continue to develop CognitiveMapr. “Soon we will launch the R package, for those who know how to work with it and need more customisation. Furthermore, we will promote everything to improve findability. The R package can be found in my Github account, everything from the software will be added too. Moreover, I want it to be included in repositories, like the one of the Netherlands eScience center. Femke van Esch is looking forward to taking the method further into the world. “People who tested the software have already indicated that they want to start working with it. And also colleagues who loved CM but did not want to get started with it are now saying: If I can do this with just a few clicks, it really gets interesting. That makes me very happy.”

About the FAIR Research IT Innovation Fund

Utrecht University wants each research team to be well supported in the field of research IT. One of the ways to achieve this is through the FAIR Research IT Innovation Fund. Scientists have received a grant for projects which, for instance, improve the IT infrastructure of scientific research. You may think of projects that enable enough storage capacity for data, or of the development of tools and services that help researchers in their work. FAIR and open science principles are the guidelines when selecting projects. Other researchers must be able to easily and quickly reuse the knowledge and solutions.