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<xTITLE>Mapping the Terrain of Conflict: Information Cartography Practices for Conflict Resolution </xTITLE>

Mapping the Terrain of Conflict: Information Cartography Practices for Conflict Resolution

by Nick Papadopoulos
August 2004

In late 2001, members of a southern California community were making progress towards developing a voluntary, partnership-based system for conserving natural resources. A Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised of agriculture, environmental and agency representatives had formed to negotiate the design of the system. However, after numerous facilitated meetings the group became bogged down in conflict. Frustrated ranchers, feeling like others were not considering nor appreciating their perspective, were prepared to leave the process.

The facilitator hired to assist the TAC contracted with my company to provide our skills as Information Cartographers. We were tasked with attending the meetings, listening to the perspectives, gathering information and developing a series of system maps to be used at the next meeting. We used one of these maps to help members of the agricultural community create a bird’s eye view of perspective. It highlighted their feeling of being “sandwiched” between the pressures of economic globalization and the high costs of doing business. These pressures were forcing them to convert their land into higher yielding commodities which in-turn led to increased environmental impact, new regulatory exposures and fractured relationships with the community (Click here to view an example ).

This illustration, and the other methods and tools we used, helped people see what farmers and ranchers were experiencing and develop a better understanding of the factors that were driving agricultural decision-making. For committee members stuck in the trenches of complexity and tension, this work helped them step back to reflect on their shared context and recall why they had originally chosen to explore the path of collaboration in the first place.

This experience sparked my interest in researching methods and tools designed for supporting the unique aspects of conflict resolution procedures. In particular I am interested in helping practioners and parties sustain awareness of context, deepen understanding of complex systems and manage overwhelming amounts of data and information. Below is an introduction to a few core methods and technologies that we integrate into our Info-Cartography practice to support project teams and parties.


As Info-Cartographers our first task is to help parties create a lens for reflecting on and assessing the conflict they are embroiled in. An essential element of creating this lens is the development of a collaborative display. This involves using a whiteboard and/or a lap top computer and digital projector to create a jointly-owned space for illustration, mapping and writing together.

This display is used at appropriate times throughout the process to work with parties to draft illustrations and manage data and information. These illustrations could be a single text agreement, a complex social system or a map of community interests (see below). Using a shared display helps to create a visual environment for learning, sharing and problem solving. In addition, this technique creates a mechanism that allows valuable contributions of perspective and knowledge to be validated in front of the rest of the group.


Dana Tait Sandlin of Advanced Solutions , while interning at The Carter Center, devoted an entire internship to studying President Jimmy Carter’s mediation methods. One of the key findings from her research was that the use of a single text document is one of the most valuable methods he calls upon. [1]

In our practice, we frequently use the collaborative display to project large font documents for joint review and editing. Early on in a process we will use this approach to help parties develop ground rules, which are often one of the first agreements developed. We have experienced that this method saves project resources by allowing for faster development of better documents. But more importantly it creates a common visual framework for discussion and allows the parties to experience building something together.


Surfacing the underlying dynamics of complex conflicts can be one of the most challenging tasks a facilitator or mediator faces. To help in this challenge, organizations and professionals trained in systems dynamics are exploring how their methods and tools can support conflict analysis and resolution.

In our practice, we often work in real time, using a shared display to help project teams and parties work together to ‘map out’ the complex system of dispute they share. Such work can help parties see the deeper patterns of relationship and dynamics that are driving the conflict. In addition, they often realize that their disagreements are small compared to what they agree on.


In interest-based conflict resolution processes it is helpful to have a way for making parties’ interests visible. A useful tool we developed during a recent consensus building project is called an interests map. This illustration is used thoughout the process to review proposals and develop interest-based agreements. This continually evolving tool serves as a valuable filter to ensure that proposals and ideas reflect the full range of interests and needs that parties bring into process.

  • Click here to view an example of an Interests Map developed in collaboration with the North Bay Consensus Council (NBCC).[2]


In complex, multi-party conflicts, how we work with data and information has a tremendous impact on whether things get better or worse. As Peter Adler and his colleagues have written, “Government agencies, community groups, environmental advocates, academics, and businesses each approach the gathering and explication of data in their own way and with their own needs in mind.”[3] To work through this dilemma practioners must find a way to integrate these disparate “ways” into a common and mutually agreed upon approach for gathering, storing, and using data and information.

To achieve this goal, we combine the use of a shared display with mapping tools to create a group “map” for managing information and guiding joint inquiry. We have learned how to combine an interest-based approach with multiple software technologies to bring information management into the room in a way that helps not distracts from the process (Click here to see a sample screenshot). When used appropriately, these methods and tools can reduce the frequency of data and information conflicts and improve the quality of access and use. Below are two organizations that develop software technologies that we find useful in the conflict resolution setting.

  • The Compendium Institute focuses on the research of methods and tools for negotiating collective understanding "on the fly," capturing meeting discussions, and sharing representations of knowledge and perspectives. We rely on Compendium software (free to download) in meetings for illustrating and exploring complex systems.

  • Groxis, Inc. is an organization that develops a software program called Grokker for visualizing and organizing research. We have found Grokker to be an extremely valuable (and low cost) tool for accelerating research and supporting the joint inquiry process.


The language that practioners use in a conflict setting can make things better or worse. This includes the visual language that we use to create illustrations and manage data and information. Practitioners must apply the same sense of ethics, cultural sensitivity, confidentiality and other factors when learning to apply these methods and tools. I learned this the hard way early on in my practice.

In one project focused on working with multiple stakeholders to negotiate a county’s grading ordinance we created a map of stakeholder groups and their relationships. On the screen, farmers and ranchers were inadvertently positioned below the environmental perspective. One member of the agricultural community got out of his chair and yelled "See, we're always the ones at the bottom. The environmentalists are always the ones with the upper hand." The lead facilitator and I altered the map to honor this perspective and help the group build on this experience but it underscored an important lesson: those interested in bringing new visual methods and tools into a conflict must exercise caution otherwise their work can have unintended and negative consequences.


Bringing illustration and information management methods into the conflict resolution setting is a challenging process. However, if performed correctly and carefully such methods and tools can support parties in mapping the complex terrain of conflict and developing sustainable paths to resolution. This article provides readers with a snapshot of basic methods and tools that can add to the practitioner’s toolbox. Individually, these methods described in this article can be learned relatively easily and applied by practitioners to enhance their work. And with commitment and training, practitioners can integrate these methods and tools into a real-time practice used to support parties working to resolve their differences.

End Notes

1 From personal email correspondence with Dana Tait Sandlin of Advanced Solutions (5/29/04)

2 North Bay Consensus Council website ---

3 Managing Scientific and Technical Information in Environmental Cases- Principles and Practices for Mediators and Facilitators , by Peter Adler and colleagues.


Water_Policy_Map.jpg  (Water_Policy_Map.jpg)
Community_Interests_Map.jpg  (Community_Interests_Map.jpg)
data&infomgt.jpg  (data&infomgt.jpg)


Since 1999, Nick Papadopoulos and his colleagues have applied the methods and tools described in this article to many situations of dispute including complex natural resource, environment, labor and agriculture issues. For more in-depth material readers are encouraged to download and read a recently-completed white paper titled Conflict Cartography. In October of 2004, ViewCraft will begin offering workshops on these methods and tools to facilitators and mediators in Northern California.

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Additional articles by Nick Papadopoulos