Migration and Conflict: from Evidence to Solutions

Venue: Graduate Institute, Geneva

How to generate policy-relevant evidence and ensure its effective translation into decisions?

This was the central question of this event organized by EGAP in collaboration with the Graduate Institute Geneva and the Geneva Science-Policy Interface. It gathered about 50 participants from within and outside of Geneva, coming from academia, international organisations and NGOs.

A roundtable kick-started the event with introductory remarks by Prof. Simone Dietrich (UNIGE) and representatives from the U.N., academia and NGOs. Based on their remarks and interactive exchanges with the audience, there seemed to be consensus that early engagement between science, policy practitioners and agencies was key to maximize the impact of research looking towards future implementation. Clear calls were made for further efforts in terms of joint agenda formulation and for researchers to articulate, as much as possible, clear policy recommendations as part of the evidence they produce.

As one participant in the audience highlighted: “We don’t need better ways of doing one-way knowledge transfer between science and policy; what we need is more co-creation between the two”.

Debates around policy-relevance and how to define quality of the research (in particular from a practitioner perspective) led to fruitful discussions on both the production and translation of research. Examples were given where the impact of smaller, more interactive pieces of research had more echo with implementers than longer, in-depth studies over large datasets.

Following the opening roundtable, two tracks on conflict and migration enabled researchers to present insights of their research and their implications for policy and practice. After each presentations, practitioners provided a response about the usefulness, policy-relevance and quality of the research, which led to discussions on both the production and translation of research.

As stressed by one participant: “We all have to deal with uncertainty. For decision-makers to change what to do, they need clear indications despite high uncertainty. The implementation itself can also help figure out what works and what does not. We need to understand that implementation is also an opportunity to produce information and learn.

A wrap-up session concluded the event with the insights from two of the event's rapporteurs and from GSPI Executive Director, Nicolas Seidler, who emphasized the importance, yet challenge, of undertaking effective connections and collaborations between science and policy. He stressed the need for people with a new skillset – among scientists, policy actors but also among new players at their interface – to help translate needs, expertise and enable vital connections to promote the type of science-policy engagement that are needed to address complex 21st century challenges. Offering the GSPI’s services to help overcome barriers to such collaborations, he invited the EGAP network and others in the audience to reach out to explore future collaborations.

As we further build our network with professionals involved at the interface of science and policy, we were strongly encouraged by the nature and substance of discussions between scientific and policy actors present, in Geneva and beyond. It also offered a strong confirmation of the unique skills, change of mindsets and practices that are needed to enable impactful science-policy collaborations that can address some of the most urgent challenges our societies are facing, and where the GSPI could play a useful role as facilitator.


Digitisation: What Role for International Geneva? (Digital Day 2019)

On 3rd September, the University of Geneva welcomed a broad set of participants from the public, research, International organisations, NGOs and the private sector to the 2019 Digital Day. Geneva celebrations centred around the theme « Putting people at the core of digital transformation », a challenge discussed in the context of growing pressures to set up ground rules to minimise the risks and maximise the benefits of digitisation in our societies.

The Geneva Science-Policy Interface was one of the co-organisers of this event. We helped set-up an experts’ panel that questioned the role that Geneva - with its longstanding humanitarian tradition and the presence of numerous international bodies directly or indirectly involved with regulation of digital activities - could play in bringing concrete responses to empower and protect users in the context of the digital revolution.

The panel included:

  • Moderator: Isabelle Gattiker (Director, Festival du Film et Forum International sur les Droits Humains)
  • Jean-Yves Art (Senior Director, Microsoft)
  • Yves Daccord (Director General, ICRC)
  • Samia Hurst (Director, Institut Ethique, Histoire, Humanités, University of Geneva)
  • Valentin Zellweger (Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN Office at Geneva)

This exchange between research, policy, practice and corporate actors went over the unique added value that the Geneva ecosystem of actors could play as a laboratory to test potential areas of consensus on some of the issues surrounding Internet governance.

In light of a growing number of initiatives, including the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and the newly announced Swiss Digital Initiative, panelists seemed to agree that an approach of small steps offered a useful way forward. Building trust over time across different stakeholder groups could hopefully lead to finding common ground across political and cultural borders on a set of minimum standards, values and ethical principles on the way to address issues such as online freedoms, security and privacy.

Snapshots from the discussion also included:

  • Arbitrations between values such as security and freedom require ethical and political responses, not technical ones.
  • Social contracts need to be translated to the digital era. Geneva offers a unique space, with a high concentration of relevant actors on this issue, to have this debate in an inclusive and bottom-up manner.
  • Although global solutions would be favoured by industry (level-playing field), broad multilateral consensus around Internet governance issues seems unlikely at this stage: soft policies and temporary alliances of like-minded countries seem the most likely scenario in the foreseeable future.
  • There are growing expectations for big players in the ICT private sector (GAFA) to engage in global dialogues around digitisation and to contribute to finding collective solutions.
  • Digitation pushes humanitarian actors such as the ICRC to quickly reinvent some of their core functions and ways of working. Digital data is becoming a question of life and death in some conflict areas.

As Swiss and Geneva authorities step-up their efforts to offer a conducive space to find common ground and consensus on critical challenges surrounding digitisation, sustained dialogue between researchers, policy, industry, technical and civil society organisations will remain essential. As part of this broader picture, the GSPI remains available to facilitate the development of effective collaborations between science, policy and practice actors from the Geneva ecosystem and beyond.


Politics and Power in Evidence-based Policy

International Geneva actors, and other communities aiming to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, need an approach that helps to filter information, grasp complexity, and make decisions despite uncertainty – this is the purpose of evidence-based thinking.

The GSPI event series on evidence-based thinking in practice aims to support exchange and learning on challenges and practical approaches for evidence-based thinking across Geneva’s policy and research communities. Our first event had shed light on the importance of evidence-based thinking, and highlighted barriers and pragmatic strategies to achieve it nevertheless.

One of the barriers is related to the fact that evidence-based thinking takes place in a social and political context that features power dynamics. The purpose of our second event was to discuss this reality, and explore how researchers, policy-makers and practitioners can navigate and factor in power dynamics and politics in the path towards evidence-based policies.

On Tuesday October 1st, twenty-eight participants from diverse backgrounds attended GSPI’s event on Politics & Power in Evidence-based Policy.

After a set of welcoming remarks by GSPI Executive Director Nicolas Seidler and moderator Louise Gallagher, three experts shared their insights on the role of power in evidence-based policy.

Anja Kaspersen, Director of the United Nations’ Disarmament Office in Geneva (UNODA), shared her experience as a former diplomat and from her current position, which involves providing evidence to member states. She emphasised that diplomats are often tasked to push for agendas rather than wait and update their priorities in light of new evidence. She portrayed her work as that of a ‘professional translator’, one that ensures that people with diverging views and powers understand each other and can find compromises.

Ms Kaspersen also advanced that scientists do have power and should use it whenever they can. One example is the Biological Weapons Convention which was largely driven by scientists who were closely in touch with policy-makers.

Lastly, together with her colleague Scott Brummel, she presented their current work on analysing the formal process around Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS). The idea is to uncover and reduce human biases in topical negotiations using automated analyses of public input documents by member states. Their goal is to progressively understand how UNODA and other UN agencies can better provide evidence-based support to member states.

Phil Gass, Senior Policy Advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), expressed the view that science and facts do not carry much weight if politics and power hinder policy change.

He presented the insights IISD collected in an effort to map power dynamics in Indonesia. Power-mapping is a method that enables to understand power networks and identify the leverage points to create policy change. In this case, IISD was able to uncover some of the power dynamics behind political blockages regarding renewable energy. IISD identified that the people who support renewable energy are the ones with the least amount of power or engagement level, despite their large number size.

His colleague, Chris Beaton, argued that power-mapping can be thought of as the first step in the dialogue that opposing parties should have to create change. For IISD, this type of analysis and the resulting advocacy strategies allow them to use evidence in a more effective way to foster policy change.

Finally, Moira Faul, Deputy Director of the Public-Private Partnership Center at the University of Geneva, presented her on-going work in network analysis to better understand policy networks and partnership dynamics.

Featuring a case from her recent research, she showed the significant differences that can exist between maps of multistakeholder partnerships on paper (formal), and how they look in practice when understood through interviews (informal). While the former one showed actors with equal relationships and power, the latter displayed a much more centralized picture with donor states and multilateral institutions as key actors holding more power.

Interestingly, Dr Faul also explained that the more central the actors in a given network, the less they believe about the importance of power, and conversely. Moreover, she explained the role of nodes at the intersections of network clusters, playing a gatekeeping and brokerage role and thus in a position to decide when and why different clusters can connect, and how evidence can flow.

There seemed to be a general consensus among the participants that politics and power are a reality that not only needs to be better understood, but also factored in by a wider range of actors beyond lobbies and advocacy organisations. This is particularly true for scientific actors and think tanks aiming for their knowledge to have an impact in the world. This is also something that policy actors need to acknowledge and address if their goals are to promote stronger evidence-based policies able to address complex challenges identified under the umbrella of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Interested in receiving information or to make suggestions about our next events? Reach out to us at contact@gspi.ch or subscribe directly to our newsletter to stay informed.


Event agenda

16:30 WELCOME, Nicolas Seidler, Executive Director, Geneva Science-Policy Interface

16:40 DISCUSSION, Introduced and moderated by Dr Louise Gallagher, University of Geneva

  • Dr. Moira Faul, Deputy Director,  Public-Private Partnership Center
  • Phil Gass, Senior Policy Advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development
  • Anja Kaspersen, Director, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs



Evidence based thinking brainstorm, Geneva Science Policy Interface

How Are We Navigating Evidence-Based Thinking in International Geneva?

Science is a critical partner in developing the tools, evidence, analysis, and actionable knowledge to help us disentangle the complexity of current global challenges - not least those captured in the 2030 UN Development Agenda. Yet, there are many and barriers to implementing evidence-based approaches in designing effective policies and programmes.

On Monday 24 June 2019, the SDG Solution Space at Geneva’s Campus Biotech offered the perfect setting for the launch of the GSPI’s Evidence-Based Thinking in Practice event series.

The series aims to support exchange and learning on challenges and practical approaches for evidence-based thinking across Geneva’s policy and research communities. The target audience are professionals engaged in strategic planning, research management or production, and science-policy collaboration functions within Geneva’s international community.

During this event, approximately 20 participants from a variety of backgrounds (such as knowledge management, research, policy analysis and advice) and sectors (such as humanitarian, ICTs, health, environment, economic affairs) actively unpacked barriers and opportunities within evidence-based approaches.

Starting from a working definition of evidence-based thinking:

“A process of making good-quality decisions based on a combination of critical thinking and best-available, relevant evidence of the highest quality”

The discussion was stimulated by the intervention of two experts who shared real-life success and struggles around their efforts to bring evidence-based approaches to their work.

Brenda Koekkoek, Programme Officer, SAICM Secretariat (UN Environment Programme), shared her perspective on the needs, opportunities and barriers for scientific collaboration to support the sound management of chemicals throughout their lifecycle. This is an issue that not only requires an interdisciplinary approach, but also resonates strongly with several SDGs. She stressed that, unlike climate change and biodiversity, chemical management is a fragmented field that is not currently covered by strong science-policy interfaces and would benefit from more holistic, evidence-based mechanisms. Sharing her one-time experience mobilising students to help produce new policy-relevant knowledge, her fundamental challenge was to find the time and space for engaging both with academics and with her professional hierarchy , to make sure the knowledge produced doesn’t remain in the classroom but is practical and functional for effective policy and action in chemical management.

Nathan Ford shared his experience working as the Head of the World Health Organisation’s Guidelines Review Committee, whose mission is to ensure the existence of sufficient evidence to produce health guidelines. As authoritative policy products, guidelines are based on a thorough quality assurance process that evaluates existing scientific evidence. Beyond assessing evidence, the role of the committee is also to avoid conflicts of interest and to ensure that there is diverse representation among the committee members making the decisions.

Evidence must not only underpin policies, but evidence-based policies should turn into actual practice. Displaying a hierarchy of evidence (from single case reports to randomised trials and meta-analysis), Ford also stressed that when considering evidence and research, factors such as feasibility, cost, ethics must also be taken into account.

Based on these thought-provoking presentations, a dynamic discussion with participants led to the identification of a set of barriers and opportunities, including:


  • Time: neither researchers nor policy professionals are time-rich people;
  • Space: conveners are needed to gather science, policy and implementation actors around the table to define their common needs;
  • Timeframes: referring to the amount of time between the production of research-based evidence and policy and programmatic needs;
  • Mindsets: there is a difference of mindsets and language between academics and practitioners. Not all disciplines are (or should) be aimed at producing actionable research. There are also challenges for scientists with a neutral research ethic to find the right setting to work with practitioners or policy actors that have an agenda;
  • Asking the right questions: people spend a lot of energy on questions that might not be the most pressing (given time and resource constraints), or might already have answers (information asymmetry).


  • Datasets: policy and implementation actors often produce important datasets that they would like to exploit better, but don’t necessarily have the time or expertise to do so. This offers opportunities for researchers, who are themselves often in need of this type of source material;
  • Recognising that different actors can produce evidence: think tanks, advocacy organisations and international organisations produce evidence, often codifying knowledge at a certain time. In complement and adding further value, researchers may spend more time for in-depth analysis and knowledge production. Researchers can provide longer-term outlook on existing knowledge gaps;
  • Integrating citizens in the equation: communicating evidence to people affected by policies and getting them involved in implementation for more impactful research, policy and programmes. Strengthening the alliance between citizens and scientists to positively influence political priorities.

The GSPI’s Program Associate, Maxime Stauffer, then provided a synthesis that contextualised evidence-based thinking not only as a normative goal but also in terms of pragmatic strategies that can be adapted to barriers and contextual realities. He shared some best practices and recommendations, including building a toolbox of methods that can be selected on a case-by-case basis. Helping professionals in Geneva build that toolbox will be the aim of the future sessions of the Evidence-based Thinking in Practice Series.

Recommendations for upcoming events included going past the notion of evidence as monolithic, but exploring its individual elements: what type of evidence do we need? For whom? At which part of a policy or a programmatic cycle is it most useful?

Similarly, participants encouraged exploring different models in the evidence hierarchy: though softer instruments might be easier to produce and put into policymakers’ hands, they might produce less authoritative outcomes. This, again, calls for adapting evidence-based thinking to specific contexts.

As we take stock of the feedback received, we are starting to plan for upcoming events in this series that will dive into specific methodologies and scientific disciplines that resonate with efforts of professionals in the Geneva ecosystem.

Stay tuned!

Interested in receiving information about our next events? Reach out to us at genevaspi@unige.ch

WSIS Forum Announcement, Geneva Science Policy Interface

How to Automate the Analysis of Aerial Data in the Context of Aid & Development

WeRobotics, Picterra, Pix4D, Geneva Science-Policy Interface, International Organization for Migration (IOM), Medair, UNOSAT, UNITAR, ETH Zürich Ecovision, EPFL Tech4Impact


On 11 April, at the 2019 WSIS Forum hosted by the ITU, the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, in partnership with WeRobotics and other partners, organized a panel discussion on the use of aerial data in the context of aid and development. This event was a direct follow-up to an expert meeting that the GSPI hosted in December 2018.

The panel shed light on a type of science-policy-engagement model that GSPI is promoting, with very concrete examples of how IOs, NGOs and scientists can work together to bring about impactful, evidence-based solutions to current challenges.

In particular, this session focused on how aerial images produced by drones or satellites can provide vital data to support the work of aid & development workers. For instance, such data can help the monitoring of refugee settlements, emergency response to natural disasters, scalable agriculture programmes, and much more.

While data has become more available to support evidence-based decision making, today the challenge has shifted from ‘no data’ to ‘too much data’, thus calling for automated solutions.

Summary of discussion

“An image contains a lot of information, and an AI is a way to go through all of it and retrieve useful information.”

The discussion covered four overarching topics: the current needs of organizations in terms of data analysis; existing methods; concrete applications; and coordination of efforts.

Organizations need to make sense of large databases to understand complex, multi-faceted issues and act quickly. This effort raises many analytical challenges as data analysis still is very resource-intensive for many organizations. For instance, MEDAIR’s current bottlenecks are the slow pace of data collection and analysis; it is not done systematically; and the difficulties in training their staff to work in data science. Additionally, refugee camps are crowded and dense. Environmental issues are large in scale and interrelated. Conflict-affected zones are difficult to access. This clouds organizations’ sight and ability to design appropriate programmes. Therefore, how can organizations see more clearly to intervene more effectively?

Several panellists presented methods which directly respond to organizations’ needs. PIX4D and Picterra presented the state-of-the-art means of bridging remote-sensing imagery with machine-learning algorithms. The contribution of PIX4D and Picterra were prominent examples of contributions from the private sector to development aid.

More concretely, IOM and UNOSAT presented two projects applied to the Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to offer solutions to the Rohingya refugee crisis. They specifically showed how drone and satellite imagery combined with AI could help decision-makers to understand the size and complexity of a refugee camp half of the size of the city of Geneva. This is highly relevant and applicable to a myriad of other contexts. For instance, such technologies would allow for zooming in and out in conflict zones to design peace-keeping interventions; or in the case of natural disasters, prepare emergency responses and manage refugee flows.

While the Cox’s Bazar and similar examples are geographically specific challenges, EcoVision (ETH Zurich) demonstrated the vital role of satellite imagery in analysing the environment at a much larger scale. They showed that satellite data covering the entire globe could support scalable environmental programmes and push the envelope in terms of planning.

Finally, Tech4Impact (EPFL) presented its survey which identified 192 research labs that work on Sustainable Development, illustrating the existing supply of research and development that must match the demand from organisations.


An important lesson from this panel was the consensus among speakers that cutting-edge technologies, including AI and automation, can help aid and development actors do much more, much faster and with fewer resources - but such technologies cannot replace humans. Instead, they augment human capacity to tackle pressing issues and should be developed with this objective in mind.

An ongoing dialogue between scientists, practitioners and decision-makers is thus necessary to ensure that technology developments benefit society. The GSPI is committed to connecting organizations that need such technologies and experts who can provide them.

Global challenges conference, Geneva Science Policy Interface

Strengthening the Interface between Academia and International Geneva to Address Global Challenges


Faced with increasingly complex global challenges in interconnected areas such as health, environment, humanitarian work, development and ICTs, international organisations need to develop integrated solutions involving a wide range of stakeholders across sectors and institutions. Academia is a key partner in this endeavour. Although collaboration between international organisations and scientists is already taking place, more needs to be done to ensure that academic institutions engage in a more sustainable way with international actors to assist in the development of sound and innovative policies at the international level.

On the occasion of a high-level meeting of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and of the Global Council of Research-Intensive Universities Network (GCRIUN) in Geneva, the GSPI, together with the UN Learning and Knowledge Commons, have convened a special event at Palais des Nations to discuss ways of fostering innovative models of engagement between European universities and International organisations based in Geneva.

Key stakeholders from international Geneva were invited to share their insights on pressing issues requiring scientific evidence and academic thinking, taking stock of opportunities and gaps to address these needs. LERU’s research policy directors shared their current thinking on impact research and engagement with external stakeholders and suggested ways to better support global policymaking in the areas discussed. Representatives from international organisations, permanent missions to the UN in Geneva, academic institutions and other non-state actors in the audience were able to actively engage with these issues throughout the afternoon.


LERU press release

Address of Michael Møller, Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva

Aerial Intelligence meeting, Geneva Science Policy Interface

Aerial Intelligence in the Context of International Aid and Development

Aerial Intelligence in the Context of International Aid and Development, 6 December 2018, Uni-Dufour

On 6 December 2018 at the University of Geneva, the GSPI, together with, swissnex Boston and WeRobotics, co-organized a meeting of experts on the use of Aerial Intelligence in the context of International Aid and Development. The meeting brought together a diverse panel of more than 30 participants from International organisations, NGOs, Academia and startups.

The event was part of the WeRobotics series of experts meetings and swissnex Boston’s “Aerial Futures: the Drone Frontier” programme. Meetings addressed pivotal issues facing the safe, ethical and effective use of drones in humanitarian action, as well as a critical review of cargo drone technologies, codes of conduct and medical-use cases.

The meeting took advantage of Geneva’s unique location as a global scientific and policy hub where scientists, international organisations, policymakers and private actors are using drones to address a range of pressing global challenges. Thanks to the convening power of the GSPI, the meeting brought together a diverse panel of more than 30 participants from organisations like UNOSAT, IOM, UNHCR, ICRC, UNEP, WHO, MSF, Human Inclusion, Medair, Geneva International Center for Deming (GICHD), Academia from the University of Geneva, EPFL and ETH and startups such as Picterra.


During their introduction, Nicolas Seidler, GSPI Executive Director and Christian Simm, CEO of swissnex Boston, emphasized the importance of supporting dialogues between science, policy and practice to enhance the societal impact of technologies. The drone applications are an interesting case in point.

To kick-start the meeting, Patrick Meier set the stage with an introduction on aerial AI and its various applications in aid and development. Meier explained why aerial and satellite imagery pose a Big Data challenge. His talk was followed by 5 short lightning talks, which provided a range of perspectives and lessons learned from various stakeholders across different disciplines (see programme). The lightning talks session was concluded with videos from the finalists of the Open AI Challenge.


In the discussions that followed, participants identified important synergies and common challenges between their respective projects. For example, there was clearly a need to update analytical solutions across the board; understand how to weigh the trade-off between the accuracy of AI-driven analysis versus the speed at which AI can deliver such analysis; selecting appropriate hardware and software solutions for onsite processing versus cloud processing; build local capacity in the use of AI; follow existing data protection and data sharing protocols; ensure that drone companies do so as well. The Humanitarian UAV Code of Conduct (UAVCode) was referenced multiple times during the meeting. Some of the most fruitful discussions occurred between field-based organizations and data scientists, with the former detailing their needs and the latter highlighting the latest available solutions from the field of AI, machine learning and computer vision to meet said needs.


A number of new partnership opportunities were clearly evident during these discussions. Given the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration, participants also emphasized the need to facilitate and support the creation of interdisciplinary teams to advance the challenges discussed. In addition, participants expressed a strong need for follow up meetings to address other important challenges in the use of drones; such as the use of drones for humanitarian action in conflict zones, and the need to update the UAV Code to include the latest lessons learned and best practices.

The GSPI, WeRobotics and swissnex Boston encourage participants and other organisations engaging with drones in humanitarian context to flag partnerships opportunities.

Public event

The experts meeting was followed by a public lecture by Patrick Meier on “Drones for Good: Humanitarian Action from the Sky” that was extended by a panel discussion facilitated by Christian Simm, including Prof. Giovanna di Marzo, Director of the Institute of Services Science at the University of Geneva and Ivana Nady, Assistant Settlements Officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Watch Meier's lecture here.

Conference Drones for Good, Geneva Science Policy Interface

Drones for Good: Humanitarian Action from the Sky

Despite the hot debate surrounding the security and military applications of drones, a growing community of innovators has taken advantage of this technology to improve the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. From delivering blood to remote communities; to automatically collecting and analysing data on migration flows; to supporting disaster relief efforts to providing new insights on climate change the use of drones to deliver goods and provide high-quality aerial intelligence yields new opportunities to support the advancement of a wide range of key objectives identified by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What are the latest practical technological developments in the use of drones to support international aid efforts? How can policymakers, researchers, private actors and NGOs work together to maximize the benefits of these technologies while minimizing the potential risks?

Patrick Meier, PhD, Executive Director of not-for-profit organization WeRobotics, has illustrated some of the latest developments in this field through practical examples.

A panel discussion took place with:

  • Giovanna Di Marzo Serugendo, PhD, Director, Computer Science Centre, UNIGE
  • Patrick Meier, PhD, Executive Director, WeRobotics
  • Ivana Nady, Associate Settlements Officer, UNHCR
  • Christian Simm, PhD, CEO, swissnex Boston (moderation)