October 19, 2021
Diplomacy meets equity as an interdisciplinary partnership yields a powerful new platform aimed at leveling the policy-making playing field.
On its face, the request from the U.S. Department of State seemed simple: Design a digital dashboard to allow officials to quickly research how often United Nations (UN) member nations had sided with the U.S. on various topics. Wondering how often the votes of the U.S. and members of the G-77 have coincided on issues related to human rights? Nuclear arms and disarmament? Decolonization? Plug in the variables and find out.
In practice, it was anything but.
“From a policy perspective,” Associate Teaching Professor Fiona Creed says, “people often think there are a lot of possibilities, and there are. But then you add the data piece into it, and you realize—this may not be as straightforward as we think.”
It was the spring of 2020, and Creed had secured a project via the State Department’s Diplomacy Lab program, a public-private initiative wherein the federal agency partners with colleges and universities, outsourcing research and other tasks related to foreign policy challenges by offering student teams, led by faculty experts, the opportunity to wrestle with real-world problems.
For this particular project, the charge was to find a way to measure and visually render the degree to which members of the Group of 77 developing nations (a bloc that now numbers 134 and includes Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan) had voted in alignment with the U.S. Creed found the problem fascinating, and she knew her students in the College of Professional Studies’ Global Studies and International Relations graduate program would embrace the challenge.
She also knew they couldn’t do it alone.
The task was perfect for Creed’s students because it required researching, developing, and applying a sophisticated understanding of international relations to categorize UN resolutions and group them by topics and subtopics. But it also entailed logging the votes on each resolution, building digital dashboards, and figuring out the best ways to graphically render the decades of information contained in the UN voting history. Massive amounts of data were involved. The numbers would have to be crunched, the code written, and a design that would let users easily turn the figures into images such as bar graphs would have to be conceived and executed. All of it would take some serious expertise in programming and data analytics.
A long-awaited collaboration
Luckily, Creed knew just whom to call—in fact, that person was sitting right across the hall.
“Alice is very good at explaining to me how the data works and what’s actually possible,” Creed says of her colleague and office neighbor Alice (pronounced ah-LEE-say) Mello, an assistant teaching professor in the Master of Professional Studies in Analytics program. The picture that emerges as the two describe working together is a kind of collaborative counterpoint, with Creed the visionary international affairs expert and Mello the technical miracle worker—and grounding voice of reason.
“I come in with big ideas,” Creed says. “‘This is amazing! We can definitely do this! Absolutely! Consider it done!’ And then Alice is right there saying ‘No, actually, that’s not going to work, because the data just won’t support it—but here’s what will work.’”
That synergy, rooted in shared experience and complementary expertise, has been years in the making.
Creed, whose career has encompassed research, diplomacy, entrepreneurship and the nonprofit sector, was born in Ireland and started her professional life as a policy analyst at the EU Delegation to the United Nations in New York City. She later served as executive director of the United Nations Association of Greater Boston, where she oversaw operations including Model UN, the Association’s flagship experiential learning program focused on diplomacy and global issues. For her PhD in European Studies at University College, Cork, Creed studied EU coordination at the UN.
Mello, born in Brazil, began her professional career as a programmer while still a student at the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. She went on to work as a software engineer for Coelba, the big utility that distributes power in Bahia state. She later developed database management applications for the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, worked as a programmer at MIT and co-developed a technology-in-education consultancy. Her PhD from Tufts University is in Education, Technology, and Drama.
When the expatriates met at Northeastern, Mello says, they quickly found common ground, and before the Diplomacy Lab opportunity arose, they had long imagined working on a project together.
“I had a project with the UN in 2018,” Mello says, “and I approached Fiona about how we might make it sustainable, but we didn’t really end up pursuing it. Another time she asked me to present to students who needed data analytics on their projects. So we’ve had a few times that we’ve tried to work together, but nothing really went up. This time, it did.”
With students in their capstone classes and other courses onboard, the two educators launched the project. Soon, as global studies students sifted through thousands of UN resolutions, applying their knowledge of international affairs to categorize each, data analytics students began building the user dashboard and writing the code to generate a powerful, intuitive interface that would allow end-users to easily parse the information to suit their needs. As the students worked, their collaboration began to mirror that of their professors.
“One of the most interesting pieces for us was hearing the students interact,” Creed says. “The identification of the countries was becoming so fluent for the data analytics group that they were starting to notice things about the politics and to ask questions that the global studies students could answer. It was brilliant to see that come together.”
“For the analytics students it was super-interesting,” Mello adds, “because it’s basically getting qualitative data and transforming it into something quantitative. If it’s all quantitative, you punch in the numbers—and I’m not saying it’s easy—but you can do it. But to get qualitative data and then to transform that into quantitative, to look at patterns and have some basis for it statistically, that is where all the magic and the synergy came in.”
As students labored to build something new, part of the challenge became grappling with ambiguity. When you’re inventing something, it can be hard to know what success—or a good grade—will eventually look like. But learning to tolerate the uncertainty inherent in such a process, Creed and Mello say, actually helped students explore new modes of thinking.
“Working logically, analytically, but also understanding the process isn’t having all the answers, it’s figuring them out—I had never had that kind of thinking until I did my PhD,” Mello says. “But in this project, we tried to bring that to these students, because that’s the thinking that they need to do well to be good data scientists and good data analysts. It really resonated for me, to see them learning that way.”
Creed and Mello also note that, in some ways, the composition of the classes doing the work reflected the subject of the work itself.
“I had students from India, Ethiopia, a student based in Kuwait, and one in Qatar, who is in the U.S. military,” Creed says, “and then Alice’s group had students from China, India, and the U.S. When you’re looking at policy making and analyzing all of what was in front of us, it was really interesting to get the perspectives of students who were from the countries that they were working on and seeing patterns, or not seeing patterns, and then we could tease out afterwards with them, ‘What do you think of that?’ or ‘Why is that?’”
One of the most interesting developments, the researchers say, was the shift from a U.S. focus to a more global perspective. Engendered in conversation with their UN contacts, in the perspectives of students from diverse countries of origin, and through their own lenses as immigrants, that shift came to reflect the deepest mission of the portal that would eventually be known as the Global Consensus Toolkit.
“A primary motivation for having a public access portal,” Creed and Mello write in the introduction to the visual analytics platform they and their students developed, “is to level the policy-making playing field.”
“There was a lot of data,” Creed says. “We worked with it, Alice and I, plus multiple teams of students. There are many departments of foreign affairs or governments, globally, that just do not have the time or money to dedicate to getting into the UN digital library, downloading everything, coding it, reworking it—and so that’s where coming back to that original Diplomacy Lab ask, that we saw the relevance of this material being publicly available. And the usefulness of it.”
Big audience, broad applications
That usefulness, Creed and Mello say, reaches far beyond international affairs. Although the Toolkit was designed with diplomats in mind as the end-users, the information it contains—and the lenses it provides for sorting and analyzing that information—might easily be applied in the work of researchers, think tanks, nonprofits, advocacy groups and policy decision-makers or anyone else seeking to accurately chart the tides of power and the relationships among nations over the past 20 years.
From their “client,” the Global Consensus Toolkit earned rave reviews. When students presented at the State Department via Zoom, the reception was unequivocal. A senior UN official in attendance, Creed reports, was astonished.
“He said, ‘That is amazing. We have tried to work with this data before and we have never seen anything like that,’” Creed says. On the spot, he proposed a continued collaboration, one that would involve digging even deeper—and would not require a new application through the Diplomacy Lab program. With that project in mind, Mello and Creed plan to align their capstone classes this winter and next spring. For now, they are delighted to invite the world to use the free, online tool they and their students developed.
“Fiona told me in the beginning that nobody had done this work before,” Mello says. “There have been some static models of voting patterns, but we were able to create an interactive dashboard that is really functional—and that, nobody has done.”