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Data and diplomacy

In Focus: Reporting from eCommerce week on Data and Development
Described as the ‘oil’ of the 21st century, the potential of data to achieve breakthroughs in various industries and fields is significant. Diplomacy is no exception.

Data and diplomacy have three major interplays: data shapes digital geopolitics; data governance is a topic on the diplomatic agenda and data is a tool in diplomacy.

These interplays can be explored by grasping the cross-cutting nature of data governance, as shown in the image below.

At the technical level, data need standards in order to be interoperable. Here, the work of standardisation and technical bodies comes into play.

At the security level, data is subject to many breaches. In the last few years, millions of email accounts, credit card information, social security numbers, and other personal data, were stolen. Data security is at the centre of activities of the tech industry and governments worldwide.

At the economic level, the Internet business model is based on data. The role of tech companies which handle and process users’ data, and the role of authorities to ensure users and their data are protected, come into play.

At the legal and human rights level, the main issue pertains to the protection of users’ rights, including the right to privacy and data protection as well as protection from mass surveillance. Since rules are anchored in geographical spaces, jurisdiction is often the main issue that arises in disputes. Courts are increasingly becoming de facto rule-makers. Civil society plays an important role in advocating for users’ rights.


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What is the difference between data, information, and knowledge?

Data pyramid - Knowledge, Information, Data

Here are the details about the pyramide’s three levels:

Data: Facts and figures which relay something specific, but which are not organized in any way and which provide no further information regarding patterns, context, etc. I will use the definition for data presented by Thierauf (1999): “unstructured facts and figures that have the least impact on the typical manager.”

Information: For data to become information, it must be contextualized, categorized, calculated and condensed (Davenport & Prusak 2000). Information thus paints a bigger picture; it is data with relevance and purpose (Bali et al 2009). It may convey a trend in the environment, or perhaps indicate a pattern of sales for a given period of time. Essentially information is found “in answers to questions that begin with such words as who, what, where, when, and how many” (Ackoff 1999).

IT is usually invaluable in the capacity of turning data into information, particularly in larger firms that generate large amounts of data across multiple departments and functions. The human brain is mainly needed to assist in contextualization.

Knowledge: Knowledge is closely linked to doing and implies know-how and understanding. The knowledge possessed by each individual is a product of his experience, and encompasses the norms by which he evaluates new inputs from his surroundings (Davenport & Prusak 2000). I will use the definition presented by Gamble and Blackwell (2001), based closely on a previous definition by Davenport & Prusak:

“Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, expert insight, and grounded intuition that provides an environment and framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the mind of the knowers. In organizations it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories, but also in organizational routines, practices and norms.”

Making use of data abundance

In order to make use of abundance, the first question one should ask is what is the potential of data in diplomatic practice.



Data could be used to better inform foreign policy, measure foreign and domestic sentiments, or to monitor quickly-unfolding emergency situations. In addition to serving as a tool, data arises as a topic on the diplomatic agenda, from data-sharing between countries and the protection of personal data across borders, to the regulation of e-commerce data flows and international standards related to data. Finally, referring back to the oil metaphor, i.e. data becoming increasingly valuable, it can be regarded as a factor in geopolitical power dynamics, placing significant leverage on those countries and actors that collect, store, and control data and its infrastructure.

Where is data governance addresses?

In the diplomatic context, data and related topics are addressed in international forums, but also at regional and bilateral levels. To illustrate, questions pertaining to data sharing have been addressed at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) since its outset.

Regional bodies, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Council of Europe (CoE), and the Organization of American States (OAS), have tackled the protection of personal data, while the USA and the UK have, for instance, bilaterally negotiated the issue of data access by which British legal authorities can access data from American communications providers without review by US authorities, and vice versa.

What’s next?

Join us for the various events related to data diplomacy, and get in touch with us:

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