Big Data for Big Diplomacy

In 2012, German complex systems scientist Tobias Preis with colleagues used Google Trends to show how Internet users from countries with a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP) are more likely to search for information about the future than information about the past. The result was the Future Orientation Index. Think how governments might use Big Data analysis (i.e. unstructured from social media) to identify certain trends and issues in other countries when considering their foreign policies, from development of a policy through to taking action on current or emerging situations.

Such analysis of open source Big Data (see a footnote below on this) could help governments develop much more effective digital diplomacy strategies but also understand how to engage their citizens in explaining their approach to a foreign policy issue when they need to. This isn’t espionage at all. This is simply looking at large, complex data sets of citizen conversations in a large way…an individual is completely irrelevant and actually quite useless. It does not help a government in any way to consider the views of one, two or even a hundred people or even just a few activist groups. But looking at macro trends from a higher level, it can be extremely useful.

The Upsides of Big Data for Foreign Policy & Dialogue
In fact, a government in a developed nation like Canada or America, could look at such trends and issues in developing nations not only to inform it’s own foreign policy actions for a target country, but could share those insights with the target country. What a wonderful way to say to a developing nation “hey, you’re citizens are getting very upset over health care issues relating to cancer, you should pay attention…” The receiving country might then be able to address an issue quickly. As well, IGO’s like the UN or WHO might be able to more effectively target aid and relief programs, saving time and money and avoiding a crisis. There are many more examples once your mind starts to explore them.

The Downsides of Big Data in Foreign Policy & Dialogue
There are of course downsides and they should be considered. The country that is able to analyse open Big Data (e.g. social media) of the developing nation, could end up with some fairly vital intelligence. The analysing government may choose not to share it for foreign policy objectives of their trade and commercial interests, or for other more nefarious reasons.

It Will Happen: Considerations for the Future
Some governments are already analysing open source Big Data and for some very good reasons to benefit not just their own objectives but others. Developing policies and approaches to how research is conducted and how it is a) shared, b) implemented and c) managed are considerations perhaps for the UN, WHO and similar IGO’s. Perhaps it is at the hands of the UN to set forth guidelines? But they are guidelines. We can safely assume governments are doing this now (they are) or are considering potential projects.

What do you think? How can we approach Big Data research for policy development and what are the implications, good and bad?

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