Data Design and Diplomacy: What is at stake?

Pauline Gourlet (design researcher, co-founder of l’Atelier des chercheurs, Research Fellow at Sciences Po-Médialab)

Just like anthropologists are sometimes called on as experts by governments or international organizations to brief decision-makers or conduct fieldwork on specific matters, designers get courted (Huyghe, 2014) and start to play a role where nobody expected them to be relevant a priori. It has become common practice in the past years for international or public administrations to hire designers (Bason, 2014; Delahais et al., 2019). And in a lot of cases, these designers are hired to engage in data-related activities.

In this paper, I describe how such design work actually impacts and transforms traditional diplomatic practices. Important power dynamics are at stake for organizations and administrations in the way they engage with, and rely on data. An “evidence-based” mantra is strongly advocated for, which changes the nature of diplomatic work and installs a hegemonic way of accounting for situations. From a selection of data design accounts revolving around map production and covering different institutional and socio-material contexts, I detail some existing and emerging data design practices in this context and unpack their effects for international diplomacy. Then, I suggest ways for data designers to powerfully renew diplomatic practices by “unframing” data design from the evidence-based mantra and addressing the politics of accounts that the design work implies.

This short article does not intend to provide a well-tested or exhaustive analytical framework; it is rather an auto-ethnographic based synthesis: it draws on my personal experience as a designer called in one of these unusual spaces. I worked at the United Nations as a Data & Innovation Specialist within the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs from 2018 to 2020, where I helped promote data-related best practices for peace and security. In this context, I had the opportunity to review a broad range of data design projects, to engage in some, and to reflect on how these influence—or could influence—the dynamics and matters at stake.

“Evidence-based” everything

The “Power of data”

Willard C. Brinton, Graphic Methods for presenting facts, 1914 (scan – p.1, 1919 edition)

We sometimes have the feeling that the so-called data revolution is a contemporary zeitgeist. But, this piece of text from 1914 still perfectly matches what leaders and managers of international or governmental organizations refer to when they talk about the “power of data” applied to decision- or policy-making: expert manipulations and representations of data could make facts visible, easily digestible, undisputable, and transform them into evidence. If such transformation occurs, everybody would then have to recognize “the truth”, and as a logical result, all parties would have to agree on actions to be taken.

Although, this assumption has long ago been criticized by social scientists as highly improbable[1], it remains largely believed and vividly presented in many organizations as an important cultural change that (still) has to happen.


“The power of data has implications for virtually all aspects of our work…”
United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, presents his Data Strategy, June 2020.
(source : UNSG Data Strategy – https://www.un.org/en/content/datastrategy/index.shtml)
Today, for international or regional oganizations, such as the United Nations, this not-so-new perspective that consists of making policies and programs based on evidence is not only a methodology to guide and evaluate actions and strategies, but it is essential to fight back fake news in a “post-truth era”. This double function is typical of the confusion that exists when talking about data, between the political and rhetorical on the one hand and the domains of facts and truth on the other. Rosenberg asks a very interesting question in that regard: “what makes the concept of data a good candidate for something we would not want to deconstruct?” (Rosenberg, 2013) He shows that, because of its successive historical connotations and epistemological shifts, the term data enables this confusion. But to him, the argumentative dimension of data remains predominant, and to conclude his article with: “Data has no truth”.

Fabrizio Hochschild, United Nations e-analytics workshop, 10 July 2018 (personal notes).

For organizations, in addition to the rhetorical and epistemological dimensions, there is something else at stake with data, that is its managerial potential. A good example can be found in the recent Data Strategy of the United Nations Secretary General: both the verbal and visual rhetoric are largely inspired by the most influential business consultant agencies (see the explicit references to Deloitte, BCG, Ernst & Young in the UN Data Strategy for example). It seeks to implement a business ethos, through the use of business analytics for evaluation and accountability. Also, illustrated by the two transcripts below, this managerial aspect of using data is relevant in political contexts because of two important reasons: 1) policies are technical solutions to complex but well-identified problems and as such, they can be evaluated with KPIs (Key Performance Indicators); and 2) the public (rather abstract citizens?) can track and evaluate chains of decisions and hold decision-makers accountable, i.e. vote accordingly.

Transcript 1 — From Data to Decision-Making -David Mair, Head of Unit, Science Advice to Policy, European Commission Joint Research Centre

“We need to think properly about why we want policies to be informed by evidence. Because there are other alternatives. Some people want policies to be based on gut instinct or emotion or religious takes, or whatever it may be. […] We need to argue for it [evidence-based policy making] as a value. There are competing values in the world today. Ultimately, science, facts and knowledge can tell you about the reality we live in. […] The world is becoming much more complex, and still we look for simple solutions that will solve these problems. So we need the evidence to help us make sense of this complexity. But it’s very complicated to communicate this complexity to voters and help them make clear decisions.
Transcript 2 — Evidence-based Policy-Making – Tracey Brown, Director, Sense about Science

Can citizens actually tell what the government is trying to do and why? Is there a chain of reasoning that we can follow? Which means we don’t need to be experts in any particular area, but we can at least understand the relationship between the evidence and the proposal that’s being put before us. […] It is a very good discipline within governments to be thinking about your end-user, if you like, that public engagement; not thinking your end-user point is when you brief the minister about your proposal but your end-user point is actually the public engaging with it.

Working as a data-designer for the United Nations

In order to “harness the power of data” (see e.g. here) and implement an evidence-based approach, organizations call upon data workers to execute various operations as prescribed by standardized procedures (referred to as “data pipelines”, see figure 4). Whatever the contexts, these pipelines seek to operationalize the transformation of data into evidence for action. These operations tend to rationalize political decisions and to transform the nature of decision-/policy-making activity, anchoring it in digital and trackable technical infrastructures, and discarding other ways of knowing.

Partition and sequencing of data operations or “Data Pipeline” of the UNSG Data Strategy

This acts at least at two levels within governmental and international institutions. First, there is a competition in “getting data” to back any action, which tends to force the transformation of the world into some sort of computable information and encourage an extractivist stance with regard to the “acquisition” of data (see step 2, figure 4). Consequently, data circulation (access and interoperability) becomes an essential element, which reinforces the loss of attachments of the information to its specific context and history, and questions for which data is not available are not asked or are reframed. Secondly, it implicitly suggests a cultural shift and calls for a replacement in leading positions, as decisions and actions are now depending on a lean process, mastered by new types of experts who manipulate digital data, such as data-scientists, statisticians or data-visualization specialists.

In these “data pipelines”, designers’ tasks are meant to revolve around the production of data-visualizations: after the data is collected, cleaned and structured, designers are in charge of translating the data in a visual language, either through interactive or static representations. I was one of them, working in the Secretariat of the United Nations as a data-visualization specialist. But actually, my role was far from being restricted to the “visualization” step in a linear process. I was as much involved in data collection, analytical and communication processes, participating in substantial matters and reshaping aspects of political officers’ work through the design of new ways of accounting and of “writing infrastructures”.

Personally conflicted when operating as a data designer within the United Nations, my frustrations crystallized in the blind spot of the institution—and the individual indifference—towards the power dynamics and political aspects at play in the design of means of accounting and writing. This dimension, familiar to the anthropology of writing, has been coined by Denis and Pontille (2019) with the expression “politics of accounts”.

Politics of accounts

At least since Goody (Logic of writing (1977)), we have learned that writing practices, i.e. graphic and material operations, shape institutions as much as they shape ways of thinking. According to Denis and Pontille (2019), the role of infrastructures of writing within institutions have been discussed in two opposite ways: one that describes their standardization capabilities and their immutability, and the other one that seeks to reveal their fragile ecologies and their ambiguity, adapting to socio-material circumstances. But the authors call for a “ ‘rediscovery’ of writing practices as we witness the so-called  data revolution and the neopositivism that seems to go with it.” (ibid.) Evidence-based agendas invite indeed to stay alert when presented with facts, as to detect behind the apparent neutrality of written accounts the products of specific organizations, tailored for their specific needs (Smith, 1974).

In my work, I was often asked to produce visually attractive products and to make use of innovative tricks. “Quick wins” to “feed the beast” or to “be seen upstairs”, as some colleagues would put it. In other words, the impact of what I was producing was not necessarily perceived and certainly not discussed in terms of the underlying dynamic that is insidiously transforming what diplomatic work is about. The effects of my work within the organization and outside of it were only seen through the lense of a single purpose: can we easily act upon it? So I was left with the unpleasant feeling that it served the reinforcement of the power of a leading class, using data to back their actions and to establish their good faith and/or their legitimacy, while discrediting detractors or any other type of accounts.

This feeling was reinforced as I tried to lobby for a reorientation in the goals of the data design tasks, telling about the missed opportunities I perceived (Gourlet, 2020). Data-design processes, because they question and give a shape to specific politics of accounts, have indeed the potential to create new diplomatic situations with concrete diplomatic effects. Through carefully considering the consequences of mobilizing specific products or devices within situations, and transforming every situation as an opportunity for mediation, designers can introduce a plurality of perspectives within negotiation or slightly change the instituted approaches. For instance, I have often been told that a simple printed map presented during a Security Council’s briefing would already be a revolution. In this perspective, designers can be described as situated diplomats: while designing accounts, they experiment with different writing techniques, orchestrate partners’ concerns and voices, while being attentive to the effects of their apparatuses and reacting to, sometimes even modifying, the social and material aspects of the situations in which they are embedded. The next sections exemplify the effects of data-design processes, both in the existing institutional frames and in the opportunities that data design activities open for diplomacy.

Data Design: existing and emerging practices in diplomatic arenas

Situating data design activities

Let’s take a closer look to data-related activities as they occur from a design standpoint. By design, I refer to practices concerned with forms, involving a material production or arrangement that affects human activities. As Latour highlighted by telling the story of La Pérouse’s map, situations are key to understanding the design and development of specific writing devices and infrastructures: one needs to understand the objects, the motives and the concerns of the people acting together.

As for any empirical research, we can identify three types of activities data designers engage in (alone or with partners) when producing a data artifact: a collection activity, an analytical activity and a communication activity. For each of them, they have to deal with the same type of epistemological and methodological concerns as social scientists before them (see table 1). 

Concerns about data collection

Concerns about the processing of the data

Concerns about the communication of the results

What should I pay attention to/what is relevant with regard to the research questions I try to address?

Where to look?

How should I write what I find? Should I bring back material elements?

Are there ethical concerns in collecting the data?

Who has a saying in what is relevant?

How to look at/account for what has been collected or experienced?

Who should interpret/discuss the data?

What framework to use for analysis/interpretation?

What is the status of the data?

What tools do I use?

What is the status of the knowledge being produced?

Who is the audience?

What is my goal? Their expectations?

What could be the effects of this research? For whom?

What place to give to uncertainty/knowledge gaps?

Table 1 — Examples of concerns arising during a data design process that impact the choice of writing techniques

The way of responding to these concerns will greatly determine the choices over the writing devices and techniques one wishes to use or develop, and therefore will determine the effects of the data design activities. In order to better describe these effects with regard to international diplomacy, I propose to use Eyal Weizman’s taxonomy (architect and founding director of the research agency Forensic Architecture, who investigates cases of state violence). He refers to three sites of operations (material and spatial contexts) that match the way international diplomacy organizes and thinks about its work: the field, the studio and the forum.

The field is the site of investigation. It is the place where violence takes place and where traces are left [note, for the U.N. it would be a place where/about which a conflict occurs]. The lab is where material is processed and composed into evidence, and the forum is where it is presented.

(Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture, Violence at the threshold of detectability, 2017, p.66)

I now would like to focus on the production of a specific type of data artifacts, maps, to detail some of the roles producers of maps can play in diplomatic arenas, and how new practices are emerging in response to the “evidence-based” framework.

Designing maps: Data Designers’ roles and diplomatic effects

Maps are diplomatic artifacts par excellence: unstable, continuously worked by opposing forces, maps materialize the political projects that inspire them (Opérations Cartographiques, 2017). Far from being neutral translations of territory lines, the design of maps and the standardization of ways of accounting and representing territories, have been an important battlefield in terms of politics of accounts. Power struggles led to the spread of an hegemonic cartographic science, who made extensive use of extracted local knowledge, while depriving local populations of the capacity of producing their own maps (Hélène Blais, in ibid, p. 207).

Historically, artists, illustrators and later, graphic designers, were among the craftsmen behind the production of institutional maps (see for example, Archives Nationales or Bertin’s guidelines). As such, they have participated in the developments of these politics of accounts. When mobilized in a diplomatic setting, designing and controlling such means of production enables or prevents certain discussions, certain outcomes and powerfully frames debates, which proves to be an essential asset within negotiation. Building on Weizman’s taxonomy applied to the data design of maps, the table below suggests three roles data designers traditionally play when asked to produce maps in a diplomatic context. In addition to these existing roles, it proposes three emerging roles, heavily relying on digital potentials. I illustrate each of these roles with a specific case, detailing what motivated the production of the map and its situated use.

Table 2. Existing and emerging roles of the data designer, based on mapping use-cases

The emerging roles suggested in this table shed light on two important shifts for data design in recent years, that performatively push and strengthen the evidence-based decision-making framework.

First, digital technologies are a privileged means. So data designers are primarily interaction designers with data science knowledge or computing skills. Because digital platforms generate new sources of vast and remotely accessible data that can be updated in (almost) real time for some (these are often referred to as “big data”), they avoid long, hard, controversial and expensive fieldwork and enable massive data collection processes. Ethical considerations related to such data collection processes are often lost in complex public-private partnerships and legal jargon; they are often perceived as secondary compared to the benefits of making use of these data[2]. Another attractive aspect of big data relies on the automated processes that can easily be applied, reducing considerably the analytical effort and, as advertised, opens potentials to understand phenomena in a new light. One consequence of these emerging practices is the reinforcement of the power of “remote experts” with a statistical mindset, legitimating a stance that does not value contextualThe emerging roles suggested in this table shed light on two important shifts for data design in recent years, that performatively push and strengthen the evidence-based decision-making framework. knowledge or situated care.

Secondly, important normative powers are implicitly transferred to data designers when they act as “infrastructurers” or “score-writers”. Not only are they in charge of designing workflows and tools (softwares, models, etc.) to transform data into evidence, but they also develop habitus and schemes (cognitive structures), embedded within these designs and the ways of acting with them. Such norms define for a large part the status and effects of writing productions, within and outside of emitting institutions, but they remain often implicit or unquestioned. The criteria by which they are considered is instead how well they perform with regard to the data pipeline operations and if they produce efficient evidence to guide consolidated action.

These techniques, tools and visual productions are designed and presented as “neutral” and “objective”, but they participate in the new ways of building a common reality, through the digital translation of bits of the world by certain people, mostly working in remote contexts with secondary data.

Unframing Data Design: potential for diplomacy

This is not to say that data design could not lead to other outcomes than a reinforcement of apolitical and solutionist “evidence-based” approaches—I already mentioned missed opportunities I perceived (Gourlet, 2020). But most noticeably, flourishing outside of traditional diplomatic settings, interesting design accounts show how data design can pluralize our understanding of issues and situations (as opposed to simplify or categorize) and can address the premises, assumptions and habits previously described. These practices, I argue, offer designers some perspectives to critically resist the “evidence-based” framework and to reframe data design activities in terms of politics of accounts.

Edward Said coined the term “counter-cartography” to define a critical practice that confronts the epistemic violence of imperial maps. Eyal Weizman explains what practices are designated in Said’s proposal:

The range of such a practice extends from the psychogeographical representation of the daily lives of the oppressed and the charting of its multiple modes of knowledge production to the exposure of the spatial logic of domination, the disruption of the state’s privilege of mapping.

(Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture, Violence at the threshold of detectability, 2017, p.140).

Expanding “counter-cartography” practices, what could “counter-data design” be like and how could it affect international diplomacy?

To illustrate such unframed practices, I draw from two mapping use-cases powerful ways for data designers to participate in the renewal of diplomatic practices while resisting evidence-based frameworks (see table 3). These cases show the flip side of mapping activities: maps have not solely been powerful imperial instruments, they can also be meeting points, places of social exchange and mutual learning. In that sense, they illustrate how data design can help generate new situations and opportunities for international diplomacy and reveal data design’s potential to position the politics of accounts and its consequences as part of agonistic discussions. Such potential can be leveraged to reframe issues, i.e. participate in the formation of publics, modes of attention and attachments.

Table 3. Example of two data design stances that reframe data design in terms of politics of accounts, based on mapping use-cases

Unframing data design also consists of getting rid of the artificial distinction between the data collection, their analysis and the communication of results required by a bureaucratic organization of labor. The data design process can then become comprehensive and transverse—a call also made by Weizman:

The general aim, whether we can yet achieve it or not, is to erode the differences between the domains of the field, lab and forum.

(Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture, Violence at the threshold of detectability, 2017, p.66)

Instead of transforming data into evidence, I see the main task of data design applied to international affairs as being the constitution of a public and its matter. John Dewey, in The Public and its Problems (1927), defines this co-constitution process:  “Indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences.” (p.126). This reorientation of data design goals calls to pay attention and to care about questions such as:  who/what is or should be concerned? Who lives in the situations that are accounted for and discussed? Do these people or entities have a voice in the way what matters to them is talked about? What representation mechanisms are put in place? Who else is affected or concerned with these matters?

Data collection has long been employed as a technique of consolidating knowledge about the people whose data are collected, and therefore consolidating power over their lives.

Data Feminism (2020, p.12)

This holds true not only of the data collection but of the whole data design process. Public matter, in both senses of the word (focus and material), is precisely what should comprehensively matter for data design. Indeed, design’s ability to condition modes of attention, to direct actions and to materialize accounts can powerfully accompany public movements. In that regard, the roles I suggest in the table, i.e. the designer as a Public Maker and as a Media Archeologist, far from being exhaustive, explicit some ways one can be of such support.

Either explicitly focusing on and decrypting writing infrastructures (like the Media-Archeologist), or having dynamic instrumental relationships with them (like the Public Maker), collective writing works open new perspectives for diplomacy: as a mode of collective action, writing productions do not aim at becoming stand-alone evidence, but constitute a means to address and negotiate tough topics (governance, distributions, regulations,…) and to build common objectives.

For now, such data design practices remain more often than not in the realm of artistic gestures, and a recurrent critic points out the elitist or limited aspect of these attempts. Rare examples of unframed data design practice exist in institutional settings; most accounts inhabit other spaces, such as museums, activist/social movements or research programs. The case of “Moving Border” (see table 3. The Media-Archeologist) is a good example: it was originally commissioned as part of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia and shown in several exhibitions, but remains unknown to most diplomats or other institutional actors. The question then is: how to unframe data design more systematically in order to serve public movements and re-orient diplomacy towards fruitful plurality?


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