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Geneva university makes foray into computational diplomacy

Nicolas Levrat, director of Global Studies Institute, is overseeing the launch of two new professorships in computational diplomacy at the University of Geneva. (Credit: Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi).

The University of Geneva (UNIGE) is launching two new professorships next year in the up-and-coming field of computational diplomacy.  

The university’s Global Studies Institute (GSI) is joining forces with the Faculty of Science to fill the two new roles, whose tasks will include developing computer programmes and an open-source database to support diplomats in making complex decisions.

The professors will work closely with another new hire at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH-Zurich) to foster computational diplomacy in Switzerland.

The collaboration adds to growing momentum for making Switzerland a centre for science diplomacy. Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis has been a strong proponent of bringing together Switzerland’s technological and diplomatic strengths and was one of the initiators for the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) that was launched in 2019.

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Already in the works is a computer programme that will process documents released by multilateral institutions and look for cross references within and between different organisations on a topic.

Their test case is antibiotic policy, for which there exist 71 multilateral programmes. The computer programme will identify what different multilateral branches are doing and how interconnected and harmonised that work is. The tool will give diplomats better insight into the state of work on a topic.

Keeping track of what different countries and organisations are doing has long been a challenge for diplomacy, Professor Nicolas Levrat, director of the university’s Global Studies Institute, told Geneva Solutions.

For example, different UN teams use different metrics for measuring the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which involve 169 targets. Those working at the UN on measurement and data sharing are enthusiastic about where the new computation diplomacy project is heading, Levrat added.

There is less awareness about these sorts of projects on the political side of the UN’s work, “but we think it's something that will become quite visible and quite important in the next five to ten years,” he said.

In addition to the public funding that the University receives from the city of Geneva, private investors are taking an interest, including a firm that has put up money for the project for the next ten years, said Levrat.

A long-term plan is to develop an open-source database of multilateral initiatives. Several high-income powers are already pursuing similar data collection and processing tools, while low-income countries have less capacity to do so, he said. The new collaboration aims to both equip Geneva with computational tools for diplomacy and spread the benefits of big data.

“Our idea here in Geneva is to create an open source database with data that will be curated, and could be used by researchers or by diplomats from less affluent countries to also have their own access to this big data from multilateral organisations," said Levrat.

The University of Geneva project is in its testing phase, using small data sets to test the results before scaling up. One challenge  will be to overcome any resistance to an open access project from private developers of similar tools.

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The EU also has plans in the works for open access database and simulation tools, notably for environmental and climate change data. On 17 July, regulations broadening data access went into force.

Formal research collaborations between the EU and Switzerland are hampered by disagreements over funding, with Switzerland currently designated as a non-associated third country for Horizon Europe, the EU’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

Discussions between Swiss and EU scientists about UNIGE’s computational diplomacy project consequently remain informal at present. Levrat looks forward to closer collaboration once an agreement is settled.

Within Switzerland, fruitful collaborations are developing with GESDA. Levrat participated in GESDA’s Anticipatory Situation Room and contributed to its scientific anticipatory brief on negotiation engineering and computational diplomacy. The work GESDA is doing on the subject helped the Global Studies Institute and Faculty of Science make the case for the new professorships to the university, Levrat said.

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Computational diplomacy is the “natural evolution” of the computing power that comes with the spread of big data, said Levrat. “It makes sense to take advantage of the huge amount of data generated by the multilateral institutions in Geneva.”