Participatory Sensemaking

Maggie Hughes


How might we collect rich and complex data from community dialogues, analyze and make sense of that data? How might we design outputs of that sensemaking in a participatory way? How might researchers and community leaders work together to exchange knowledge and learn together? 

These are some of the research questions that we address in this project that builds on community-powered understanding and participatory sensemaking. We start exploring this space by inviting community members, who are often underheard, to join facilitated conversations and share their hopes, concerns, and lived experiences. Community members, community leaders, and researchers come together to facilitate conversations, produce knowledge together and learn from one another. They collaboratively engage in a rigorous process of gaining a deep understanding of people’s lived experiences shared in facilitated dialogues in order to surface their hopes and concerns and identify themes and patterns across those experiences.   

Beyond people-power alone, this project is supported and heightened with the help of different tools and skills. Our process is designed to be supported and enabled by the unique collaboration between old, ancient, human technologies like facilitation, dialogue, and active listening with new, computer-enabled technology that allows us to analyze the transcribed conversations systematically and at scale. This unique collaboration allows for the depth and richness that comes from human technologies, with the scale, replicability, memory, and transparency of new tech. 

Our sensemaking process evolves over three interconnected stages:

  • Listening: Deeply listen to and highlight key moments in the conversations.
  • Analyze: Iteratively develop thematic codes and apply the codes to the highlights.
  • Synthesize: Summarize themes identified after coding and translate themes to prompts.

Our participatory sensemaking framework is currently applied in the Real Talk For Change project a new civic space that amplifies the voices of Boston's historically underheard communities to constructively shape the 2021 election cycle.