Big data brings innovation to diplomatic practices

By Liu Min / 06-16-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Digital technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence and social media, are posing new opportunities and challenges for diplomacy. Photo: FILE

In waves of technological advancement, big data has dramatically changed every aspect of social life, including the field of diplomacy. As of today, many countries are experimenting with diplomatic innovations based on big data technology, which is providing valuable lessons for China’s diplomatic approach in the new era.


Definition of data diplomacy
Though there is not a universally acknowledged definition of “data diplomacy,” it is generally viewed as a collaboration between big data technology and social science, between international relations and diplomatic negotiations, and relies on data searching, data mining, algorithms, and even data itself to gain new diplomatic tools or platforms for diplomatic services, so as to make diplomatic decision-making and implementation more swift and accurate.

Compared with traditional data, big data is characterized by four V’s, namely volume, velocity, variety and veracity. Online dictionary, a new collaboration between and Oxford University Press, defines big data as “extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.”

In data diplomacy, data, information and knowledge form a trinity. These three are often described as a pyramid, with data at the bottom and knowledge at the top. Data are numbers, letters and images from a variety of sources, including data automatically generated by digital devices, online data (internet, media, etc.), sensor data, satellite data and text data. Data go through many abstractions and interpretations before they become knowledge for decision-making and actions. Information description constructs data in a useful way, in which meaning is attached to the data through aggregation or abstraction, leading some scholars to describe big data as “the idea that we can learn from a large amount of information what we would not otherwise understand with only a small amount of information.”

Data visualization is an intermediate step for data and information to turn into knowledge. Building on data and information, knowledge represents a theoretical or practical perception of a subject or situation. When big data analysis is combined with experience-based insight, it translates into knowledge. Therefore, diplomats make judgments based not only on big data, but also on experience, intuition and common sense.

Big data is a new topic on the diplomatic agenda, adding new traits to international trade, e-commerce, cross-border privacy and international cybersecurity. Big data can detect certain patterns of human behavior and crowd features, thus high-quality, intelligently calculated big data can create huge benefits, in terms of reducing human error and making decisions more predictable and scientific.


Big data in diplomacy
Diplomacy interacts with big data in various ways, primarily treating it as a tool, a subject or a factor that changes the diplomatic environment. At present, the most common approach is to utilize big data as a diplomatic tool to make diplomacy more efficient, effective and inclusive. Big data, artificial intelligence and other digitally driven technologies are of great value in information collection, diplomatic reporting, diplomatic negotiations, public diplomacy and consular affairs.

Among which, information gathering and diplomatic reporting are likely to be the most affected areas. From social media discourse to publicly available government data and geospatial information, big data provides new sources and analytical methods for strategic decision-making. It can even provide new insights to challenge human stereotypes and biases. While computers are unlikely to replace humans as negotiators in the foreseeable future, big data and AI will profoundly influence how and what we negotiate.

In diplomatic communication and negotiation, big data is conducive to understanding the needs of both parties more accurately and coming up with corresponding arguments and insights to support the formulation of negotiating positions and strategies. In the field of public diplomacy, big data can analyze discourse patterns and trends, provide customized analyses to support more effective communication with the public at home and abroad, and also measure the effectiveness of public diplomacy.

For example, the “E-Diplomacy” office in the United States provides technical support for leaders when they pay state visits to other countries by digging deep into the countries’ social data. As the need for public-government interaction increases, big data is fully utilized to optimize the government’s online services.

Big data is also a factor in changing how diplomacy operates because it can extract visual knowledge from large amounts of structured, semi-structured and unstructured data, even identify previously unknown knowledge and apply this knowledge to diplomatic affairs such as negotiations. This all suggests the formation of a digital divide in diplomatic activities. In the end, this will have a great impact on the traditional diplomatic environment.

While big data has predictive power, it is a resource and a tool. It aims to inform, not explain. It can enhance understanding, but it can also cause misunderstanding. In diplomacy, big data does not tell us why things are the way they are, which is where human expertise, experience and insight gained through diplomatic practice kick in to properly analyze such connections. Thus, it is still essential to make room for human experience and instinct in data diplomacy.

In addition, in the field of informal diplomacy, everyone can become a potential actor, so the role of data in diplomatic processes can be both positive and negative.


Road ahead
Big data is a good tool to support diplomatic decision-making and implementation, but our goal is never to replace diplomatic experts with automatically generated data. In the age of big data, experts with extensive work experience and academic literacy are in greater demand than ever, because big data without proper context can be dangerously misleading.

Therefore, in data diplomacy, the relationship between data experts and diplomatic experts should be carefully balanced to promote exchanges and cooperation among the two sides while respecting each side’s unique contributions. In order to amplify the role of big data in diplomatic practice, efforts could be made in the following three aspects.

First, we should establish data exchange centers to serve foreign policy decisions. Diplomatic interests shall be prioritized over technical details, which means the idea that big data analysis is only open to people with relevant technical or programming skills is incorrect. These data centers should be multi-functional, available to a diverse group of users including technologists, data scientists and diplomats, and welcome innovation and experimentation.

Statistics have always been the pillar of trade and economic diplomacy. In 2014, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry established the Strategic Council for Creating Data-Driven Innovation to study how big data can be used to boost business and trade.

As some forms of big data become available quickly and almost in real time, they can be used to help respond to emergencies and humanitarian assistance, as well as to monitor climate change.
At the same time, as societies rely more on digital tools and services, the trail of data left behind can be transformed into new forms of accountability and evidence. The International Court of Justice is exploring how to use those trails, such as social media messages, email and geospatial data, to serve international law.


Second, we need to extend to a wider range of partnerships. In practice, data collection depends less on what is accumulated by the diplomatic sector and more on what is provided by various partners, particularly in the commercial sector. For example, the US Department of State has close ties with commercial companies such as Google, while the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has long worked with organizations such as the Alan Turing Institute.

Long-term, sustainable relationships with academic and private institutions can help to outsource some data collection and analysis to save resources and cut costs, but given the nature of sensitive data, diplomatic agencies should establish internal databases and foster data analysis capabilities.
Finally, making the most of big data tools to support the work of diplomats is a systematic endeavor, which calls for comprehensive changes in institutional arrangement, law, organizational structure, personnel and other aspects. However, it should be made clear that data diplomacy does not mean that every diplomat must become a technical expert. On the practical level, the training of diplomats’ data handling capacity could be divided into three groups.

To be specific, the basic level is to have a general knowledge of data diplomacy and capability to evaluate the challenges and opportunities it brings. The level of practitioner would represent the ability to use big data tools and techniques to verify and locate information. The expert level would then mean being able to offer appropriate diplomatic insight into big data tools.

In the collection, analysis and application of big data, there will also be laws, rules and political biases that need to be further discussed regarding data access, data quality, data interpretation, data security and data protection.

Liu Min is from the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Soochow University.


edited by YANG XUE