Research in the context of the coronavirus in the DSI network

Communication sciences, psychology, theology or even computer science and dentistry - in the context of the corona crisis, many interesting research projects have been developed in the network of the Digital Society Initiative.


We would like to introduce some of the projects to you here.

Business Administration: Transitions to remote work during the pandemic

What helps employees to thrive during the transition to remote work? In a 5-week longitudinal study of employees switching to home office in Switzerland during the pandemic, we test how psychological factors, including mindsets about whether it takes a certain kind of person to be good at remote work, virtual social interactions, and personality, predict employee well-being and productivity.

Contact: Jochen Menges (Business Administration), Lauren Howe(Business Administration) 

Business Administration: Coping and Adapting to COVID-19

How does emotional intelligence matter in coping with and adapting to a sudden crisis? We studied students who reported on their feelings and behaviors over 4 different time points across the development of the Corona crisis. We match these data with students’ scores in an emotional intelligence test.

Contact: Jochen Menges (Business Administration), Leonie Hentrup (Business Administration)

Communication and Media research: COVID-19 Study on Digital Media and the Coronavirus Pandemic

With the COVID-19 Study on Digital Media and the Coronavirus Pandemic ( this research Team is collecting survey data among Swiss people from all regions of the country (plus from Italy and the US) about their use of digital media in the past few weeks, their health, where they get information about COVID-19, their willingness to install an app to help with containing the spread of the virus, their family situation, their wellbeing, and several other questions. The scientific team currently has some results for the US, by the end of April it will have results for Switzerland and Italy as well.

Contact: Eszter Hargittai (Communication and media research)

Communication and Media research: Desinformation in times of Corona

Edda Humprecht, Frank Esser and Anna Staender from the IKMZ are currently conducting a study on the spread of false information in connection with the Corona pandemic (e.g. "The Corona virus is a bioweapon produced in the laboratory"). By means of surveys and survey experiments the team is investigating the willingness of online users in various countries (Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, UK and USA) to spread such information in social media. First results indicate that online users in countries with a high degree of political polarization and comparatively low trust in established media are more likely to spread misinformation. Personal factors also play a role.

Contact: Edda Humprecht (Communication and media research)

Communication and Media research: Influence of Social Media on Compliance with social distancing

During the first week of the lockdown, Prof. Dr. Thomas Friemel and Dr. Sarah Geber from the Institute for Communication Science and Media Research investigated how important different communication channels were for the population to be informed about the Corona virus and what effect the use of these channels had on compliance with the protective measure "social distancing". There are differences between the use of classical mass media (TV, radio, newspaper) and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). The use of editorial media has a positive effect on compliance with social distancing; social media channels, on the other hand, have a rather negative effect. Firstly, social media channels contribute to the perception that others do not adhere to the standard (social norm). Secondly, social media reduces the expectation of effectiveness, i.e. the conviction that the FOPH's recommendation can be consistently adhered to in everyday life. The findings have already been shared with the FOPH, and help those responsible to further develop the ongoing communication campaign.

Contact: Thomas Friemel (Communication and Media research)

The Biomedical Text Mining group at the Institute of Computational Linguistics of the University of Zurich has been active for many years in the area of automatic analysis of biomedical text, including scientific literature, clinical reports, and social media.

In relation to the COVID-19 pandemic the group has started an initiative aimed at automatically processing COVID-19-related scientific publications, in order to detect mentions of domain specific entities of particular relevance (such as genes, symptoms, drugs, organs, etc.). The primary purpose of this work is enhancing accessibility to the literature, for example simplifying the search of papers dealing with a particular gene, or identifying unexpected connections between different entities.

A second line of research involves the analysis of social media conversations (twitter in particular) related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Different types of visualization and analysis enable to investigate variable trends in the public perception of the disease, and of the measures taken to deal with it.

Here you can find additional information.

Contact: Fabio Rinaldi (Computational linguistics)

Dentistry: Visualization of complaints

Holistic complaint visualisation thanks to digitalization: The "extraordinary situation" due to the SARS-Cov-2 makes direct (dental) medical consultations impossible. Patients should therefore be enabled to report their physical complaints and emotional stress in a detailed and structured manner from home. For their part, treatment providers should be able to make decisions about the urgency and resources of treatment (time required, relevant professional competence) and have comprehensive information available for telemedical consultations. For this purpose, the web-based interdisciplinary symptom evaluation (WISE) was developed in the DSI network. The anonymised WISE data enable scientific analyses, e.g. of the connection between pain and well-being before or during the "Corona situation". An interdisciplinary team of dentists, psychologists and computer linguists is currently investigating possibilities for semi-automated diagnostics using artificial intelligence by extracting information on physical and emotional disorders from the free text of the description of the severity..

Contact: Dominik Ettlin (Dentistry)

Digital learning: Distance learning for seniors

The project OldSchool – a distance learning platform for 65+ is a project which protects older people over 65 from isolation with various digital basic skills and shows them tools for "life-long learning".

You can find further informations here.

Contact: Burcu Demiray (Psychology)

Ethics/General: Public perception of crisis communication

PubliCo – an experimental online platform for COVID-19 related public perception: As the Corona Virus (SARS-CoV-2) continues to spread globally, causing severe human disease and death (COVID-19), citizens around the world have been exposed to crisis communication from a diverse spectrum of media outlets, including websites of public health authorities and universities, newspapers, television broadcasts, and social media platforms.

These policy briefings, expert opinions, popular sentiments as well as dashboards, interactive maps and visuals, have not only become sources of information but also an incubator for emotional responses, moral judgements, and behavioral changes in daily routines, during a public health emergency.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the DSI, the Collegium Helveticum and the SwissTPH has come together to develop an experimental, interactive online platform that helps tackle the “infodemic” manifested in the COVID-19 context, with a focus on a nuanced and in-depth understanding of public perception. Building on real-time data, continuous data collection through a participatory citizen science approach and advanced, AI-based analytics, the highly adaptable platform aims to foster effective and tailored risk and crisis communication in Switzerland and other countries, to help mitigate negative social effects of COVID-related policies and to provide insights for an emerging ethical framework for public health crisis communication and policy-making.

Contact: Nikola Biller-Andorno (Medical Ethics)

Ethics: Ethics of mass surveillance

The ethicist Michele Loi has started a community-based project within the MyData Community. He is coordinating the definition of the ethical framework for building a (set of interoperable) data commons, based on a strong values framework (MyData
principles, legal, ethical) and focused on individual empowerment around COVID-related data, with a broader focus than contact tracing. This data could be shared with academics, based on protocols defined for instance the Research Data Alliance COVID and WHO recommendations, under strict ethical and legal restrictions.

Contact: Michele Loi (Ethics)

Ethics: Opinion of the Population on Triage Decisions

Markus Kneer and his colleagues are researching the moral convictions of Swiss people regarding triage (who should be treated in hospital if not everyone can be treated?) There are already 1600 participants in the nationwide survey. The results show, for example, that in triage situations a large majority of people consider the principle of non-discrimination to be correct in principle. Many nevertheless consider higher age or childlessness as a criterion for less preferential treatment.

Contact: Markus Kneer (Ethics)

Finance: Impact of the Corona Pandemic on Share Prices

What do the stock price reactions to COVID-19 tell us? In the study "Feverish Stock Price Reactions to COVID-19", PhD student Stefano Ramelli and Professor Alexander Wagner analyze how investors react to the Corona-virus pandemic. In the apparent chaos of extremely negative and volatile stock market reactions, clear patterns are emerging. Initially, the focus was on supply chain concerns. Since the end of February, however, investors and analysts have become increasingly concerned about corporate debt and liquidity. Overall, the results suggest that the health crisis is turning into an economic crisis, aggravated by already existing weaknesses in the financial markets.

Additional info: Modern technologies are used in this research, for example because we use automatic text analysis to analyze the statements of managers in conference calls with financial analysts.  We also use data on companies' exposure to China, which is derived from company documents using algorithms.

Contact: Alexander Wagner (Banking und Finance)

History of medicine: Spread of the Spanish flu as a benchmark for COVID-19

Within the framework of the project "Digitalising health of past societies to learn for the future", the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine is currently digitizing historical archive records of how the Spanish flu spread in Switzerland at the community level. The scientists want to learn from these temporal and spatial patterns of spread as well as from the interventions of the authorities at different levels to meet similar challenges (e.g. second waves of epidemics, etc.). The project is a collaboration of evolutionary physicians, historians, epidemiologists and geographers.

Contact: Kaspar Staub (Institute of Evolutionary Medicine)

Informatics: Corona-Tracing-App

The team around Burkhard Stiller is working together with a company to write a paper about a prototype of a tracing app which completely ensures the privacy of the user and therefore, in contrast to many other apps in Asia and Europe, clearly protects the individual and his data. The protocol is based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BTE) based BTE Advertisement messages and information exchanged on a minimal level via asymmetric keys.

Contact: Burkhard Stiller (Informatics)

Intensive care: Monitoring of Corona Intensive Care Patients

The "ICU Cockpit" project has been under development at the neuro-intensive ward of the University Hospital Zurich since 2014 in collaboration with the University, ETH Zurich and IBM Research Rüschlikon. Using the latest information technology, data from numerous medical devices are recorded, time-synchronized and stored in encrypted form in real time at a resolution of up to 1000 hertz. Based on video monitoring, algorithms for the early detection of epileptic seizures and other critical complications have already been developed. In order to make the algorithms usable for clinical practice directly at the bedside, a user interface (GUI) is currently being developed in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) to visualize and interpret the multimodal data.

In the context of the Corona crisis, there is an urgent need to make the ICU Cockpit GUI available to staff as a "dashboard" for central, remote patient monitoring as quickly as possible. The ICU Cockpit-GUI, which has already been developed to a large extent, will now be brought "live" within 4 weeks in a shortened development time. This requires the following steps: 1. the software with integration of the "life data" is adapted to the specific needs of the Corona crisis (e.g. marking of test status SARS-CoV2 and isolated patients). The software documentation will be created according to medical device regulations (MDR) and algorithms for the elimination of signal artifacts and for the prediction of critical complications in intensive care patients will be validated and implemented.

Contact: Emanuela Keller (Neurosurgical intensive care unit)

Interaction linguistics: Is it possible without interaction? "Ghost Lectures" at UZH

"Lectures under Corona conditions: Can you do it without a lecture hall?"

As part of an SNSF project on the connection between interaction, language and architecture in institutional communication, the team is researching the "lecture" in the rapid transition to a variety of new digital teaching formats caused by the pandemic. Using the methods of multimodal interaction linguistics, the scientists analyze screen recordings of online lectures, podcasts of lectures recorded in empty lecture halls and video recordings documenting the situation of students when they attend lectures from home. The studies aim at answering the question to what extent the classical lecture hall architecture and physical co-presence can be substituted by the participating lecturers and students by means of other communicative methods. In this way, the project makes an empirical contribution to research into the changing nature of university teaching-learning communication, with a special focus on the changing importance of presence for the lecture.

Project information at:

Contact: Heiko Hausendorf (Department of German Linguistics)

Together with Prof. Urs Gasser (Harvard Law School, Cambridge, USA), researchers are investigating which "data sharing practices" or digital tools (software, apps) are being developed and used by countries to combat the pandemic. The spectrum ranges from "citizen empowerment" on the one hand to totalitarian surveillance on the other, with numerous other possibilities (or hybrid forms) in between. The technology is several steps ahead of the law and raises (new) legal questions. It is important to put these new technologies and their application into a legal context. The research team investigates these different digital models and their use in different countries (in particular Switzerland, USA, Singapore) and develops legal requirements and frameworks which are decisive for the use of such technologies in Switzerland (and potentially other countries) and which role the state must play in the use of such technologies.

Contact: Kerstin Volkinger (Law)

Linguistics: Reception of the Federal Council's communication in the social media

The Chair of German Linguistics of Noah Bubenhofer is currently analyzing the COVID-19 discourse. The researchers' interest is primarily focused on the question of how the communication of the Federal Council is received by automatically analyzing large amounts of data from online commentaries: Do people react with fear, panic, indifference, cynicism, incomprehension or understanding? In addition, the team observes the use of language by the various actors: What terms and linguistic images do they use? This gives conclusions about the different framing strategies.

Contact: Noah Bubenhofer (German Linguistics)

Medicine: Effects of the lockdown on persons at risk

The lockdown will soon be released for many residents of Switzerland. But not for everyone! Many so-called risk patients do not only bear the fate of a chronic disease. Their freedom of movement will continue to be restricted because a COVID-19 infection could possibly take a serious course. This can be very stressful. With the digital project FLISbook the team wants to find out how such people are physically and psychologically doing, what risks of infection they try to avoid and how they deal with the current situation. Not only today, but also in the longer term. Because for them, the lockdown may be far from over. The project will start around the end of April.

Contact: Viktor von Wyl (Digital Health)

Musicology: Influence of COVID19 on the Professional Life of Musicians

At the Chair of Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at the UZH (Prof. Sascha Frühholz) a scientific team started an online study last week on the situation of professional musicians & music students during COVID-19 in Europe. The study is available in English and German and focuses in particular on how musicians currently cope with the restrictions by recording their practice behavior in the last year vs. today, the degree of isolation, as well as the extent to which their professional life is affected (e.g. cancelled concerts, cancelled lessons) or changed (switch to digital alternatives). In this context the researchers also evaluate personality traits and the emotional consequences (e.g. fear of the future) of the musicians. In order to record how the affected person adapts to the situation, the scientists also send out invitations twice a week for a short progress measurement.

Contact: Sascha Frühholz (Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience)

Political science: Influence of COVID-19 on political opinion formation

Development of COVID-19 in the Swiss Twitter sphere ( Website is updated regularly)

Contact: Fabrizio Gilard (Political Science)

SNF Application: The Viral Politics of COVID-19

The project proposes a quantitative analysis of how the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak is influencing political attitudes and the emergent discourse on social media in Switzerland. The team will produce two new datasets that could be useful for many researchers: 1) a representative household survey with a pre-pandemic baseline, and 2) a corpus of millions of tweets by politicians and politically engaged citizens related to COVID-19. Using these datasets, the project analyzes the impacts of the health crisis on Swiss politics, where the scientists can compare trends for the elites on Twitter to those for mainstream households.

Contact: Elliott Ash (ETHZ)

Psychology: Attitude of the population towards tracing apps

The cognitive psychologist Klaus Oberauer has recently launched an online survey (via Respondi) in which a sample of about 1000 people from German-speaking Switzerland are asked about their opinion of "tracking apps" for tracking whereabouts/contacts to contain COVID-19. Two different scenarios for the introduction of such an app are outlined in two experimental conditions: A "mild" version, where the use of the app is voluntary, and a "strong" version, where it is mandatory.

It is also asked how effective such an app would be in containing the COVID-19 crisis and how acceptable the introduction of the app would be. The study is part of an international project that is conducting the same survey in several countries (Australia, UK, USA, Germany, Switzerland, and probably other countries). Klaus Oberauer is one of many cooperation partners, but did not participate in the planning and design of the study.

Contact: Klaus Oberauer (Cognitive Psychology)

Psychology: Impact of Corona on communication between elderly people (including loneliness)

A few weeks ago, Birthe MacDonald's team started a follow-up study to a project from 2019, which dealt with the daily communication of older people. The special focus was on including communication via digital devices (i.e. text messages, video calls, social networks). Since the current crisis may have changed the importance of digital communication, the team recently invited last year's respondents to complete a short weekly questionnaire about their current communication and satisfaction with it, including loneliness.

Contact: Birthe MacDonald (Psychology)

Psychotherapy: Change through telepresence

How important is presence? Psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic relationship in the transition from co-presence to telepresence

The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to fundamental changes in communication between doctors and patients – also in psychotherapy: many therapies are no longer carried out face-to-face, but via video telephony. How does this affect the therapeutic relationship? Which problems arise, how are they solved? Which ones remain? How is 'presence' created and a relationship established under these new circumstances? These are the questions an interdisciplinary team of psychiatry/psychotherapy and linguistics is currently investigating with the aim of supporting therapists and patients in adjusting to the new situation by providing them with targeted communication strategies.

Contact: Anke Maatz (Medicine)

Theology: Religious Communication in Times of Corona

An interdisciplinary team led by Thomas Schlag is currently intensively observing and analyzing the digital offerings that the churches are making during the Easter period and beyond in the ongoing crisis. This refers in particular to online church services, pastoral care and educational offers for religious education, but also to forums and personal theological statements by religious influencers in the face of the crisis.

The basic question here is, on the one hand, how the appearance of religious communication and thus of church community changes and in part also considerably strengthens in digital times. On the other hand, the team will analyse which interpretations of content and religious meanings are being made for dealing with this crisis on the various channels.

In short, the team will then research whether and in what sense these digital religious interpretations represent a publicly relevant resource for individual and societal dealing with the crisis.

Contact: Thomas Schlag (Theology)

Work Psychology: Working in Times of Corona

The Chair of Work and Organizational Psychology at the University of Zurich is conducting a scientific study to investigate how the current work situation affects behavior and perception. The team would like to find out which challenges employees currently have to cope with and which conditions are conducive or obstructive.

Contact: Pia Ingold (Psychology)