Call for Action: Data in Public Health Crises

In the framework of the annual call for funding 2021 of the Strategic Partnership between the University of Geneva and the University of Zurich, the project entitled “Governance Mechanisms for Access and Use of Data in Public Health Crises” recently released a Call for Action. This intriguing project was led by Prof. Dr. Florent Thouvenin (UZH) and Prof. Dr. Jacques de Werra (UNIGE). The Call for Action addresses the problem of effective access to and use of relevant data for decision-making in public health crisis. Particularly the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that medical data is not always systematically used in a meaningful way in crisis situations.


In order for authorities to make informed decisions in the event of a crisis, they must be able to quickly access relevant data stored by other authorities or private actors without bureaucratic effort. The Call for Action identifies various technical, legal and societal barriers that inhibit the access to and use of this relevant data. First, there is a general lack of standardisation regarding the actors and systems that hold the relevant data. Systems where medical data is stored often vary from practitioner to practitioner and from hospital to hospital. Due to high costs, a general standardization of such systems is not easy. Second, broad access to personal data or even a consolidation of large amounts of data in a central system is contested by fundamental data protection concerns. Anonymisation would technically allow for an unlimited use of data, but effective anonymisation of medical data has become very difficult. Furthermore, anonymisation may not always be desirable in a crisis situation because it could limit help to individuals in need. Finally, data illiteracy and lack of trust regarding data use are widely spread issues in contemporary society.


“Shareable data” versus “shared data”

The Call for Action outlines possible solutions to overcome these challenges. It is argued that a distinction must be made between “shareable data” and “shared data”. In principle, data should be stored in such a way that it can be shared (“shareable data”), but it is only effectively shared in the event of a crisis (“shared data”). This approach ensures that in the event of a crisis (and only then) authorities can quickly access the relevant data and use it as a basis for decision-making without having to store the data in a central system. For this approach to be feasible, the focus of data protection laws must be laid more on the conditions for data sharing and processing instead of on the regulation and prevention of data sharing and processing. However, laws alone are not sufficient. Society as a whole must support this sharing and processing of their data. Therefore, building trust, promoting data literacy and educating the public on measures to prevent data misuse are essential.


This project funded by the UZH-UNIGE Strategic Partnership offers promising answers to tackle future health crises more effectively and efficiently. The researchers from the University of Geneva and the University of Zurich are now actively in contact with politicians and the government regarding the results and their possible implementation. It is a commendable example of the important impact research can have on policy making and society as a whole.



See the publication of the Call for Action in the Jusletter, the biggest legal online magazine in Switzerland, here.


Read and download the whole Call for Action below.


Research exchange: An eye-opener to new perspectives

Caro Hautekiet is a PhD candidate researching in working memory and attention at the Working Memory, Cognition and Development Lab of Prof. Evie Vergauwe at the University of Geneva. Supervised by Prof. Vergauwe and Dr. Naomi Langerock, she tries to characterize the focus of attention in working memory in her PhD thesis. Through the funding of the UZH-UNIGE Strategic Partnership, she was able to go on a one-month long research exchange in May 2022 to work with Prof. Klaus Oberauer, Head of the Professorship for Cognitive Psychology at the University of Zurich. The research exchange turned out to serve her current research far more than she expected. In an interview, Caro Hautekiet talked about the many different perspectives this exchange opened up to her, not only facilitating her research but also impacting her personal ambitions.


An unexpected turnaround

When Caro Hautekiet started planning her research exchange at the University of Zurich, she expected this visit to be a side project of one of the research lines of her PhD thesis. However, what happened in the meantime is something that probably many researchers are familiar with: she got stuck. When examining how visual interference affects information that is held in working memory, she tested whether the information was affected by this interference and surprisingly did not find the effect that she expected.


In discussing the problem with Prof. Oberauer, one of the leading experts in the field of working memory, he recognized a possible shortcoming that she had not yet considered. He encouraged her to address the question in a different manner, that is, to not only test whether the information in working memory is affected by interference but also whether the interference might intrude in working memory. This would allow her to get a better understanding of how working memory is affected by interference. With this input, Caro Hautekiet could confidently resume her research once she arrived in Zurich. Already in the early stages of her research exchange, she started discussing next steps with Prof. Oberauer. Thanks to these initial meetings, she was able to work very efficiently during her first days in Zurich. Being ahead of schedule allowed her to dive more deeply into discussions with other lab members and get a more diverse set of opinions on her project.


Different perspectives: complementary or contradictory?

Prof. Oberauer and Caro Hautekiet’s PhD supervisor, Prof. Vergauwe, are from different theoretical backgrounds when it comes to researching working memory. Their opinions on the functioning of working memory diverge on certain key aspects. For example, Prof. Oberauer is of the opinion that the main reason for forgetting in working memory can be assigned to interference, while Prof. Vergauwe holds that it can be assigned to decay. To the PhD candidate, these diverging perspectives were not a hindrance, but rather a reminder to stay open-minded. She even considered Prof. Vergauwe and Prof. Oberauer to be quite similar as they are open to any outcome in their research. It was something that she learned from both of them.


Putting these perspectives together is really nice to get a broader perspective on the research question.

Caro Hautekiet

In fact, Caro Hautekiet considered the different theoretical backgrounds of the two professors to have been fundamental for her research. Prof. Oberauer’s background and external viewpoint allowed her to see the research from another angle, revealing some points that could be worked on differently.


A network and career boost

On a personal level, the research exchange also opened up new perspectives for Caro Hautekiet. Through working in a different lab, she met many researchers, especially other PhD candidates, with whom she would like to stay in contact for developing future collaborations. Such opportunities of researcher mobility are important for the future career of a young researcher as they facilitate collaboration with other professors and researchers, particularly regarding joint publications. Caro Hautekiet now plans to apply for a Postdoc Mobility Grant with the Swiss National Science Foundation. Thanks to her great experience at the University of Zurich, she could imagine doing a part of her postdoc research at Prof. Oberauer’s lab in Zurich.


This visit was important for Caro Hautekiet’s future career, no doubt. But she also enjoyed it personally: living in another city, discovering new places, and meeting different people. She was particularly enthusiastic about the fabulous Mexican restaurants in Zurich.


The new cultural, academic and personal perspectives that a research exchange can open up may at times be surprising but are in many ways invaluable.



Learn more about Caro Hautekiet’s projects here.

Exchange at UZH: Students tell us about their experience

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go on exchange at the largest university in the German-speaking part of Switzerland? Three students from the University of Geneva tell us about their exchange experience at the University of Zurich. Watch the video below to gain practical insights into the university life in Zurich and learn how to best go about an exchange at UZH. 



Author and producer: Carina Waser




Five newly funded projects to help engage science and society for more resilience

In March 2022, the UZH-UNIGE Strategic Partnership selected five projects for funding as part of their thematic call “Engaging science and society for more resilience”. From the societal acceptance of medical drones to the early detection of developmental delay, the projects cover a large panel of scientific disciplines. They all seek to enhance resilience among society in different ways. 


In our current global environment, resilience continues to be a key factor to overcome challenges on a large scale. We are in a race to solve the numerous crises that are facing us worldwide. In discussions about the climate emergency or Covid-19, society seems to be more involved than ever in shaping the course of our future. It is therefore even more important to foster a dialogue between science and society to jointly look for solutions.


Overview of the selected projects

The full descriptions of the projects are available here.


Improving early detection and support of preschool children with developmental delay: Combining the benefits of two different cantonal systems of care

Principal investigators: Russia Ha-Vinh Leuchter (UNIGE), Michael von Rhein (UZH)



Developmental delay is one of the most frequent disorders in early childhood, whereby children may suffer from a variety of impairments that are likely to develop into multiple chronic and life-long conditions such as intellectual disability, speech problems, social-communicative deficits, sensory impairments as well as behavioural and emotional disorders. To avoid or minimize these effects, early intervention plays an important role. The general aim of this project is to improve the detection and early intervention of children at risk in Geneva, Zurich and nationwide.


Public legitimacy of digital research methods in Switzerland: a public deliberation project

Principal investigators: Felix Gille (UZH), Yaniv Benhamou (UNIGE)



The accessibility and scope of publicly available data resulting from the growing digitalization of society led to unprecedented opportunities and challenges of public data reuse for researchers. Despite the value of digital methods, many ethical questions that these new opportunities pose have yet to be addressed. This includes the lacking knowledge of citizens that their data in the public domain might be used for research purposes, the fact that citizens are not able to consent to this type of research, and that digital methods can disconnect the research community from society. Therefore, it is important that the public trusts and understands digital methods in order to legitimize their scientific use. The aim of this project is to develop a public legitimacy framework for digital methods through public deliberation fora.


Self-efficacy & mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

Principal investigators: Ulrike Rimmele (UNIGE), Birgit Kleim (UZH)



The Covid-19 pandemic poses serious challenges to individuals’ mental health. Self-efficacy, i.e. the perception of having the capacity to cope with adverse events, is a key factor underlying healthy functioning and emotional well-being. The main objective of this project is to study how self-efficacy may be related to maintaining one’s mental health in the context of the current pandemic.


Enhancing stress resilience in society with a data-driven predictive model

Principal investigators: Giuseppe Ugazio (UNIGE), Marcus Grüschow (UZH)


Stress-related disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide and have an increasingly high socio-economic burden on companies and healthcare systems. Yet, a robust and precise method to quantify current and future population stress-related mental-health status still needs to be developed. This project aims to lay the foundation for a robust quantification and early prediction of the Swiss population’s stress related mental health status by engaging citizen participants with scientific research and building a predictive model of stress-related symptom trajectories for policy making and large-scale interventions.


Societal Acceptance of Drones in Urban Switzerland (SADUS)

Principal investigators: Ning Wang (UZH), Karl Blanchet (UNIGE)



There is a lack of empirical knowledge on the prevailing perceptions about, and attitudes toward, urban use of drones, both in the mainstream public discourse and the scientific community. The increasing demands and high potentials of drones used in urban environments requires nuanced understandings about the technicalities of the technology, the ethical risks associated to it, the regulatory frameworks within which it operates, and ultimately the acceptability of its deployment at scale. This project will focus on “medical drones” used for health service delivery and the societal acceptance thereof in Urban Switzerland.

Visit the project website

Read more about the project on UZH News


Author: Carina Waser

Picture credit for the header: Mika Baumeister

Picture credits for the article, from top to bottom: Prion Guillaume, Tianyi Ma, Denys Nevozhai, Kevin Ku, Kal Visuals