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Has diplomatic reporting shifted from narrative to data?

15 June 2017

Information has always been at the core of diplomacy. The increase in quantity and quality of information on which states and other actors in international relations can rely for decision-making presents an opportunity for the advancement of diplomatic reporting. Due to easier access to data, diplomatic reporting has the potential to uphold the highest standards when it comes to accuracy and objectivity.

As presented in the Summary Report of the Geneva Data Diplomacy Roundtable, there are many positive aspects to building on data in diplomatic reporting. Reliance on data can decrease the negative implications of many existing biases and misconceptions. Data can also serve as a tool for the identification of global trends. The impact of data is most visible in situations that require fast and efficient reactions, such as humanitarian crises. Even though the positive aspects of data are more apparent, data is subject to interpretation and can be abused to confirm the biases that benefit certain perception builders and policymakers.

However, since the role of data in diplomatic practice is increasingly discussed, we decided to look into the role of data in diplomatic reporting. To do that, we decided to analyse a small sample of the diplomatic reports that are available to the public. The team at DiploFoundation focused on reports available on the WikiLeaks website. More specifically, we focused on diplomatic cables from 2009. The research comprised two parts. The first part of the task was to analyse 50 random cables and conclude whether the cables mentioned or relied on data. Our focus was on quantitative data; therefore, we looked for statistics, big data, numbers, etc. As for the other half of our research, we decided to analyse 25 randomly selected cables from 2009 that mention the word ‘data’ and another 25 that mention ‘statistics’. Our primary goal was to determine whether diplomatic reporting goes beyond building on qualitative narratives and has entered a new sphere in which data is more substantially used in the reporting We were also interested in finding the most common sources of data and diplomats’ perception of data quality and validity.

As for the first 50 random cables from 2009, we discovered that there was absolutely no mention of data in 29 of them. Those reports that contained data related to international problems such as terrorism, human and labour trafficking, migration, viruses, natural disasters in specific countries, etc. The data referred to in these cables were simply listed without further analysis and, in many cases, the sources of the data were left out.

The other half of our research included the analysis of 50 randomly selected cables from 2009 that mention the words ‘data’ and ‘statistics’. Our analysis allowed us to conclude that occurrences such as the world economic crisis, the N1H1 virus, and international problems such as migration and international crime dominated the cables in 2009. Due to these facts, the greater part of the analysed cables showed a heavy reliance on data and statistics gathered by domestic and international actors such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, UN agencies and programmes, etc. However, the diplomats did not treat all data equally – the source of the data was the determining factor when it came to reliability and trust. It is important to stress that their readiness to rely on data gathered by international organisations stems from the fact that their methodologies coincide. For example, the difference in Russian methodology, about data gathering and data utilisation, was mentioned in both cables that analysed the situation in Russia. In many cases, the USA relied more on statements provided by experts and US nationals than on national statistics and reports. A common function of the statements and opinions examined was to confirm existing narratives, not to challenge them.

Not all reports are required to be based on data – some events and occurrences cannot be measured or categorised. This research has demonstrated that the use of data and statistics depends on the subject that is being analysed and reported. However, since diplomacy and diplomatic reporting play a big role in policy-making, it is necessary that they make use of data responsibly.

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