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Virtual interns: online researchers aid Moneyball project.

"Moneyball," the book and movie, tells how baseball executive Billy Beane shifted from reliance on old-school scouting to applying an evidence-based approach when assembling a team. It worked; his Oakland team won 20 games in a row. Noting this, Richard Boly, former director of the Bureau of Information Resource Management's Office of eDiplomacy (and a baseball fanatic), applied the Moneyball concept to foreign affairs with a June 2013 Moneyball Diplomacy conference on applying data-driven analysis to foreign policy.

That event led the Bureau of International Organization's Office of Policy, Regional and Functional Organizations (IO/PRF) to consult with Boly and the eDiplomacy staff, and link its Moneyball aims with eDiplomacy's Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) program, according to Eric Nelson, current director of eDiplomacy.

IO/PRF wanted to better understand multilateral voting behavior and diplomatic outcomes in multilateral venues. Its Multilateral Moneyball effort brings together student researchers and Department officials for short-term, data-driven research projects. The research team recently examined trends and anomalies in the voting behavior of blocs and individual countries at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, assessing their voting coincidence with the United States and its diplomatic competitors.

Bridget Roddy, VSFS program manager, directed PRF to the VSFS intranet website, where PRF submitted a project description and waited for students to register. Next, PRF's Multilateral Moneyball coordinator, Mario Crifo, interviewed applicants and selected three--Maggie Petersen, George Kailas and Mina Pollmann--who had the strong statistical and analytical skills he needed for a team that would work largely online with IO.

It was a good fit, with the Department offering foreign affairs experience and the students bringing ideas, energy, expertise and insight. VSFS eInterns spend 10 hours a week for eight months on their projects.

Because the VSFS researchers received PRF's guidance and mentoring during weekly group conference calls and frequent individual calls and emails, it hardly mattered that they were in Missouri, New York and London. A cloud-based shared workspace set up for the project also helped keep participants closely connected.

Although Petersen, Kailas and Pollmann only met each other and their PRF supervisors for the first time the night before their Jan. 17 presentations, they said they felt like they knew each other well.

While the virtual interns' formal findings won't be released until April, preliminary findings are available. Pollmann, a Georgetown University student studying at Oxford this year, found evidence that the variation in the effect of foreign assistance on U.N. voting affects how aid is delivered, including whether aid is multilateral or bilateral and whether it is project-based or has unrestricted budget support. She compared the United States with China, the European Union (EU), Japan and South Korea, and examined the importance of bilateral trade relationships.

"Evidence seems to indicate that direct budget support has a more powerful effect on recipient state policy, even when the amount is lower," Pollmann said, adding that she'll assess how foreign aid affects an economic relationship, and how these patterns affect America's international competitors.

Kailas of New York University is using a statistical technique to assess the cohesion of voting blocs within the United Nations on sustainable development, human rights and multilateral resources. He is identifying countries that define and motivate consensus and countries that are the most comfortable breaking with bloc positions and can potentially encourage other countries in their region to follow suit. His research will suggest avenues for U.S. diplomatic engagement.

"The G-77 [a loose coalition of developing nations] is a key voting bloc," Kailas explained, because of its size and diversity. He said G-77 voting behavior "is much more nuanced than previously thought. Understanding when certain members vote with or against the majority, and how those patterns change over time, will help us develop better engagement strategies."

EU member nations' voting at the United Nations in the past five years has shown increased divergence. Petersen of Missouri State University explained this and earlier divergences in EU bloc cohesion. Her research examined past behavior in response to economic crises and major political events.

"Economic and domestic factors continue to disrupt the EU's best efforts to form a common foreign policy," she observed. "By comparing changing EU voting patterns after the 2008 sovereign debt crisis with earlier similar inflection points such as the breakup of the Soviet Union, we'll have a clearer picture of the long-term sustainability of these initiatives."

Under the VSFS program, student journalists, scientists, mathematicians, graphic designers, researchers and social media experts offer valuable skills, form networks and even gain college course credit. This year, 505 virtual interns, more than double the level of last year, worked on 276 projects. The program received 2,630 applications through

"We couldn't be more pleased with our collaboration with the Office of eDiplomacy and the Virtual Student Foreign Service program," said IO/PRF Director Joe Cassidy. "Our student researchers are doing cutting-edge analysis that is yielding insights that will improve our understanding of the multilateral world and lead to more effective U.S. diplomacy."

Offices can submit a request for one or more virtual interns for the 2014-2015 program via the intranet site beginning May 1. Requests must be submitted by June 10. For additional information or questions, contact

VSFS Projects Address Many Needs

Virtual Student Foreign Service eInterns this year are involved in a range of projects. At the Office of the Historian, for instance, three library science students have improved access to the Department's historical records by applying tags to hundreds of resources, a subject taxonomy available at

Intellectual Property Enforcement has eight business students improving the business environment for American companies through quantitative and qualitative analyses of how public diplomacy and intellectual property reporting tools build a positive business climate. Working with university professors and other Department offices, the interns are using their skills in economics, statistics and qualitative analysis.

In the Office of Investment Affairs, two economics students developed a friendlier set of instructions during the Investment Climate Statement process. The office also has a law student whose legal research supported the Principal Bilateral Investment Treaty negotiator during preparation for discussions with China.

By Nora Dempsey, senior advisor, Office of eDiplomacy
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Author:Dempsey, Nora
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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