Think globally, act locally: How open data can be a force in city diplomacy


Los Angeles highlights its global sister cities. Photo by Prayitno via Flickr.

Cities are increasingly looking to their global peers for new ideas, strategies, and best practices. As they do, data is becoming an important tool for cities to understand one another and engage in meaningful discourse.

Open and standardized data is more important than ever as this happens. Open and standardized data can help make inter-disciplinary, inter-sectoral, and inter-city dialogues more effective, and can help cities report back in accountable ways to their residents.

Today, we’re taking a closer look at how open, standardized data can help cities learn from their peers internationally and contribute to international diplomacy efforts.

Public and private diplomacy comprises of multiple tracks. In one track, national representatives lead official state affairs for agencies and bureaus. In a second track, unofficial non-state actors, including leaders from academia and civil society, participate in a range of relationship-building for their constituent communities. In a third, person-to-person diplomacy features individuals and private organizations promoting interaction and understanding.

City diplomacy” offers a synergy of these three tracks in which local government officials who do not hold formal jurisdiction over foreign affairs collaborate internationally. Globally, inter-city collaboration offers a huge opportunity to strengthen international relations while also allowing municipal governments to work together and exchange best-practices across sectors, including building and implementing robust open government reforms.

This coming September, the Global Parliament of Mayors, cofounded by Benjamin Barber, the late political theorist and author of If Mayors Ruled the World, will bring together city leaders from around the world. They will share ideas about addressing local challenges prompted from global problems, including climate change, security, migration, and inequality. The event will be a chance to see city diplomacy in action.

Think globally, act locally

The movement for cities to collaborate has been growing organically for decades, notably with organizations such as the National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors within the United States, and the United Cities and Local Governments (UNLG), the largest global network of local governments. The UNLG’s advocacy led the United Nations to create its New Urban Agenda, which calls for sustainable development, technology-focused urban planning, and public services at the local level through a range of partnerships across the public and private sectors.

As this work expands, the release and application of open government data can become both an agenda item to advocate for and an asset to rely on in the facilitation of city diplomacy. Communities anywhere can benefit from more transparent, responsive, and standardized open data in cities. Intra-city collaboration has already demonstrated the advancement of open data best practices across the United States as well as Canada and Europe, building a foundation for further international city-to-city cooperation.

Opening data isn’t just a crucial early step for cities to become “smarter.” Collecting, structuring, analyzing and publishing open data can improve transparency, accountability, efficiency, public safety, and health in cities. Beyond business, the social impact of open data can drive meaningful improvements to city government around the world. Trustworthy open data releases can offer reassurance to the public and industry that the information used is verifiable. Cross sector and city-to-city discussions can leverage data to act as a catalyst to drive collaboration between governments, civil society, and the private sector.

Improving the climate with (and for) open data

As city leaders around the world engage in comparative dialogue and informed decision-making, they will rely upon transparent and standardized data. Initiatives to standardize open data, like the World Council on City Data’s Dubai Declaration for “high calibre city level data,” stress that data standardization for evidence-based policies is key in planning urban infrastructure, investments, and development. Such standardization can allow best-practices and tools to be used both at the intra-city level, by working with various resident communities and local partners, and the inter-city level, by sharing insight and resources from fellow cities facing similar and increasingly unprecedented urban challenges.

Subnational cooperation between cities to implement the COP21 Paris Agreement has increased in the wake of the United States government’s announced withdrawal. Conventional diplomacy within international bodies has generally not yet evolved to adequately connect with local stakeholders, but states and municipalities across the United States have committed to using data and evidence in municipal policymaking to address climate change.

Institutions like the Compact of Mayors have created new networks and resources to help cities to reduce carbon emissions. These commitments from mayors to maintain sustainability targets, made amidst changes in the federal climate policy, illustrates how metropolitan regions can work together to solve challenges, independent of federal support.

City-to-city collaboration can also be leveraged to enhance open government, despite contemporary changes in federal government transparency. The Open Government Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative that includes 75 countries voluntarily committing to making their governments more open and accountable, also focuses on local government. Despite the slight decline of the United States overall on the Open Data Barometer, cities in the United States are showing leadership.

City-to-city discussions, shared learning and peer-network support are helping officials to focus on people and improve transparency through the release of meaningful data sets. The development of a global city-to-city network with open data workgroups will sustain progress in transparency through inter-city dialogue. Constituents can contrast themselves with other cities, helping to keep their local elected officials accountable to the norms being established—or protected—in other cities.

In summary, city leaders applying open data can help transparency, improve understanding within and between cities, and increase the capitalization of open datasets in cross-sector ventures to have a social impact upon common problems.