Big data: The next accelerator for diplomacy?



Digital devices play an increasingly central role in many people’s lives and analogue tools are becoming quickly outdated. Phone books, travel agencies, and taxi companies are becoming obsolete with the advent of mobile phones, Airbnb, Uber, and countless other online solutions. With the advent of the Internet of Things, not only are our obvious digital devices – phones, tablets, and laptops – becoming linked to the Internet, but so are our formerly analogue tools – doors, fridges, and thermostats. Watches are turning into digital wearables with the capacity to track our every movement, and cars are connected and could even become driverless in the future.

At the basis of all these developments is data. The generation of data can turn into incredibly valuable insights for businesses and has become an integral component of many Internet companies’ business models. As a consequence, everything is becoming data-driven. In today’s data-driven era, companies are investing in data-driven science, data-driven journalism or data-driven marketing. With data as the building block of innovation and insights, can we identify a case for data-driven diplomacy? And how can we make sense of data diplomacy while keeping both feet on the ground instead of surfing the waves of the data hype

Big data: a seemingly endless realm of possibilities
Data diplomacy can be conceptualised in many different ways. Both the concepts ‘data’ and ‘diplomacy’ are broad constructs harbouring many sub-categories along a range of different understandings. Following Jovan Kurbalija’s framework, which he outlined in this blog post, it can denote the use of (big) data as a tool for diplomacy and international affairs, as a topic for diplomatic discussions, and to denote the changing environment in which diplomacy takes place. Here, we zoom in on the use of data as a tool for ministries of foreign affairs.

Of course, data itself is nothing new. It simply is a record of an activity, and it has been extensively used by diplomats ever since the advent of diplomacy. Yet, the amount, form, and speed at which it is generated today is unprecedented. These three attributes are often defined as the 3Vs of big data: its volume, variety, and velocity. The 3Vs are harmonised into a powerful cocktail that has allegedly created a break from the past that begs the need for a new, data-driven approach to any discipline. Diplomacy – with its focus on tradition, ingrained rituals, and deeply-rooted protocols – is no exception.

New forms of data come in many shapes. Data exhaust is data that is passively and automatically collected through the use of digital devices, such as the GPS-tracking on our mobile phones or the time spent on our friends’ Facebook pages, not to mention data collected from connected fridges, cars, and watches. Online information denotes content that appears on the Internet, such as texts on websites, videos on YouTube, and tweets on Twitter. Physical sensors include the millions of satellite images that are being created by an ever-increasing number of satellites orbiting the earth. Finally, crowdsourced data provides an opportunity for Internet users to contribute data to research projects.

These data forms can be used as a tool for the advancement of diplomacy, including:

  • Consular affairs – example: maintaining and analysing databases of foreign nationals, and their timely locating during emergencies
  • Strategic planning policy research – example: using big data to analyse trends in bilateral relations or the emergence of multilateral agreements
  • Public diplomacy – example: analysing social media data to better understand the image of one’s country abroad
  • Development and humanitarian aid – example: better directing aid to target populations, and monitoring the effectiveness of aid projects
  • International law – using big data to substantiate legal evidence, for example using satellite imagery

Big data’s limitations and challenges
The possibilities of big data are countless, but before generating the impression that big data can be the key to unlocking all challenges, we also need to acknowledge its serious limitations and obstacles. The first one is maybe the most obvious: how to get access to datasets in the first place? Most databases are preserved by external organisations and companies, and cannot readily be used. Even when having access to datasets, their quality could be dubious, and ensuring the security and privacy of personal data demands extensive effort and resources.

The interpretation of big data should be conducted bearing in mind its biases: does the data really represent the population, or only the wealthy and young who have access to, and extensively use, the Internet? How to best interpret data if there are many ways to frame their outcomes? And finally, is there sufficient knowledge, skill, and awareness in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or international organisations to make best use of big data, ask the right questions for analysis, properly present its results, and keep the data secure?

In sum, big data’s utility as a tool for diplomatic activities can be assessed along three axes: the first axis denotes the different shapes the data can take, the second axis describes the different diplomatic activities that can be affected by big data, and the third axis outlines the obstacles that need to be overcome in order to capture the full potential of big data. Taken together, we can construct a 3D (data-driven diplomacy) toolbox.

Merging opportunities with obstacles: towards a 3D-toolbox?
DiploFoundation is currently creating this 3D-toolbox in the form of the Data Diplomacy research project, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. The project includes two seminars, one of which was organised on 5 April. The summary report, Data Diplomacy: Mapping the Field, is available here. Based on the inputs from a diversity of experts, the report outlines the following recommendations:

  • Capacity development and awareness raising are needed in organisations for an overall understanding of how to work with data and how to keep it secure.
  • To make optimal use of existing data in an organisation, their findability and management need to be enhanced so that they can be more easily accessed by those who need them.
  • Data should always be embedded in its proper context and combined with traditional expertise. With the right combination of data analysis and expert knowledge, assumptions can be tested and biases averted. It is also important to refer to institutions or official channels to cross-check and verify information.
  • Technical ways to better secure data, such as encryption and blockchain technologies need to be looked into.
  • Where possible, the organisation should have clear open data policies and make data openly accessible within the limits of what is reasonable, given privacy and security concerns.
  • Data consistency across countries to enhance comparability needs to be emphasised through the standardisation of data collection and formats, and through compatible legal frameworks.
  • When outsourcing data collection or relying on publicly available data, their quality, as well as ethical, privacy, and security concerns, need to be addressed.

Would you like to learn more about data diplomacy? Check out our data diplomacy page. For any further suggestions or input on the topic of data diplomacy, please send an e-mail to

This blog post is part of the Reflections on Data Diplomacy series of posts. We invite you to follow this blog for more reflections and further updates on data diplomacy over the next weeks.