EPFL, ETH Zurich and the ICRC put engineering at the service of humanitarian aid

Securing biometric information for the distribution of humanitarian aid is a life-or-death issue in a conflict zone | ICRC

Lausanne’s EPFL, ETH Zurich and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have joined forces to apply their engineering expertise to humanitarian aid programmes.

Supported by a fund of CHF 5m over two years from the ETH Board, the “Engineering Humanitarian Aid” initiative aims to put technological solutions developed in the labs of the two schools at the service of humanitarian aid. Six initial projects have already been selected in the fields of energy and environment, data sciences, cybersecurity, and personalised medicine.

Why it matters.  As ICRC President Peter Maurer explained, wars are largely influenced by new technological developments. But humanitarian aid can also benefit from technological solutions, provided that its very specific challenges are known to engineers. Especially since the potential for the use of technologies, in particular digital technologies, remains largely untapped in humanitarian work, according to Joël Mesot, president of ETH Zurich. The two schools already had projects with the ICRC, but this initiative should make it possible to systematise them.

The logic of collaboration.  The three partners were already working on joint projects. For example, EPFL and the ICRC created the “Humanitarian Tech Hub” in 2016, which resulted in the development of a prosthetic foot for victims of conflicts and the “first patent filed in the name of the ICRC”, according to the president of EPFL, Martin Vetterli.

The new initiative will broaden these collaborations to reach all areas of the ICRC's activities.  Peter Maurer, said:

"New technologies affect all aspects of humanitarian aid, from the protection of populations to the logistics of aid, including law enforcement or monitoring the behavior of belligerents."

The idea for this initiative was born at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018 in an effort to address the particular technical challenges posed by humanitarian aid. For example, according to Clara Setiawan, who works for the ICRC in Baghdad:

“In conflict zones, tracing displaced people is particularly difficult. Biometrics could facilitate the identification of people without identity papers, as well as family reunification. Provided that this data is particularly well protected because in the wrong hands this information can also mean death. "

These technologies thus introduce new risks. For example, in 2019, the World Food Program had to halt food deliveries in Yemen's capital after Houthi rebels refused to allow the registration of the biometric details of beneficiaries.

Six projects in development. The collaboration between the three partners takes shape around R&D projects. The first six have been selected:

  • Private biometrics for aid distribution . In humanitarian emergencies, determining the identity of recipients of humanitarian aid is difficult and biometrics could make it easier. But it can also raise concerns about the protection of privacy, in particular the possibility of revealing the personal data of beneficiaries. This project aims to design a biometric system suitable for deployment in humanitarian contexts without endangering the confidentiality of their beneficiaries.

  • Information harmful to humanitarian organisations. Disinformation and hate rhetoric are common tools to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and incite violence - including against humanitarian organisations. In 2018, aid workers fighting Ebola (including those from the Red Cross) were victims of disinformation campaigns, which led to violence. This project aims to develop technical means to fight against disinformation directed against humanitarian organisations on social media.

  • Mapping of vulnerable populations with AI. This project aims to help the ICRC draw an accurate map of the local populations in order to improve the planning of humanitarian action. The aim is to estimate the size and density of the population, along with related information such as type of housing. This information will come from satellite images and social media posts, processed with machine learning algorithms and integrated into detailed population maps. This will allow the ICRC to estimate the size of the populations affected by conflict and the possible number of people to be repatriated, as well as to plan its humanitarian response accordingly.

  • Sustainable construction in humanitarian action. The ICRC works in conflict contexts where technologies for sustainable construction are not used, often for lack of resources. This project is to provide guidance on how to use environmental impact assessment tools in humanitarian action. The aim is to reduce the environmental impact, in particular on water and local housing, in places where the ICRC is active.

  • Decision support for medical procurement. Based on the analysis of data from the ICRC's medical supply chain and the study of organisational processes, this project aims to identify the causes of poor information flow, model potential improvements and propose solutions. The aim is to avoid waste and improve the availability of medicines.

  • Cybersecurity for humanitarian organisations. The increasing digitisation of humanitarian data flows risks making humanitarian organisations vulnerable to cyber attacks. This project aims to secure the digital environment of humanitarian organisations.

A new call for projects will be launched in spring 2020.

This article was originally published in French on Heidi.news