Remarks on Data at State

Heather Higginbottom
Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources 
Washington, DC
December 6, 2016

Good afternoon. It’s great to be here with all of you today for this important discussion on Data at State. Focusing on improving and transforming the way we use data can have a tremendous impact on how the State Department carries out its mission. So, first, I want to thank the Data Community leaders who organized this event -- Tiffany Smith, Kobe Gillette, Amin Vafa, and Lyla Combs. And I want to thank all of you - the data champions from across the Department - for your passion and proactive leadership.

Your work to integrate data into our decision making is helping to bring the practice of diplomacy and development into the 21st century. Secretary Kerry and other senior leaders recognize that data is critical to the next generation of American diplomacy. And that’s why data was a focus of the 2015 QDDR. We have more data about virtually everything we do than could even have been imagined a decade ago. As we implement the QDDR and modernize our conduct of diplomacy, we are working to use data to improve nearly every aspect of our operations just as we’ve seen its use transform other fields.

Think back to last month. Late one night, millions of Americans were glued to their television screens. As the hours stretched on, they watched as a close competition unfold into victory. The Cubs finally won the World Series! (A little election humor) But seriously, after 108 years of trying to win by spending money and chasing stars, the Cubs adopted a data-informed approach. This data informed what players the Cubs gave contracts to, what players they drafted, and even how they deployed the players on the field. From baseball to balloting, there’s no denying that the data revolution is here to stay. And, now you are the leaders bringing the sophisticated use of data to Foggy Bottom.

This is not an easy or a simple task. The work you are doing is partly about bringing new tools to what we do – which is difficult – but it is also about changing the culture of the Department. That’s why building a community of practice is so essential to helping drive change across the organization and at all levels. As the presentations today have shown, you are making an impact. You are creating a community that embraces the use of data in our analysis, our programming, our service delivery, and our outreach. And, that is how we begin to change the culture. Questioning assumptions, pointing out how we can do better, and embracing continual improvement is how an organization becomes more efficient and effective. And that is how we better serve the American people.

As you work to enhance our use of data, I encourage you to look outside of the State Department - outside of government – for partners. The public sector is incredibly powerful and important. The work we do literally impacts every corner of the world. And so, there are data experts at universities, at think tanks, and in the private sector who want to work with us. They want to be our partners – so let’s ask them to help.

At the Chief of Mission conference in May, Under Secretary Stengel interviewed Eric Schmidt, whom you all know is the former CEO of Google. Rick asked Schmidt “how, using technology, do we make diplomacy more of a science?” And he replied – “I want you to think of a thought experiment… You and I are negotiating - the principles of really tough negotiation have been studied and learned by computers - and you have a computer and I have a computer and we’re running the same program. And it tells you when to fake, when to exaggerate, when to hold. What would happen?”

He continued: “We don’t know. [pause] Right now you guys aren’t using any of the tools that should be possible in our lifetimes. Tools that can analyze these positions and help you understand them.” Schmidt went on to talk about how in the tech world there is computerization of most human processes – including driving – and he predicted that eventually we’ll see that integration into diplomacy too.

We are beginning to use computer modeling in negotiations. For example, our data experts used advanced analytic tools based on game theory to model the conflict in Syria at the request of the USUN. The model showed that the implementation of safe zones in the north of Syria was likely to fail, but that negotiating ceasefires in the south was likely to be more successful. What if every Ambassador or Special Envoy, every negotiating team, modeled potential pathways to an agreement before they sat down at the negotiating table? These capabilities won’t replace the skill and expertise of our diplomats but they will better equip and empower them.

Data is also transforming our use of foreign assistance. For example, CSO’s data-driven analysis showed that youth unemployment is the most significant factor driving homicides in Central America. The statistical regression indicated that each percentage point increase in youth unemployment was related to 400 additional homicides per year. And yet over the past 20 years our foreign aid had no impact on reducing the homicide rate. In 2014, the White House integrated these findings into a new strategy to address the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America, and the findings helped direct the several hundred million dollars for mitigating this crisis.

This is just a tiny glimpse of the future of Data at State. And, I am confident that the great examples showcased here today are steps on the path to that tech-savvy future. The potential for impact is enormous: identifying pathways to peace in places like Burundi based on data-driven models; ending the AIDS epidemic by using data to tell us where to direct our assistance and how we need to adjust in real-time; cutting wait times for visas as a result of data-driven efficiency studies; preventing radicalization through specific messages directed to key audiences; and, finally, explaining - in quantifiable detail - just how the work we do impacts the American people. This is the exciting future of Data at State and I’m thrilled that you are leading the way. Thank you for being here today and for the leadership that you will provide into the future.