EPFL researchers deliver science for humanitarian action

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Using innovative technologies and scientific expertise to help people in need is the goal of the Engineering for Humanitarian Action initiative launched by the ICRC, ETH Zurich and EPFL in 2020. Six of the projects are already offering results for tangible improvements for the ICRC.

Around the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) supports people affected by wars and conflicts. To help make planning and implementation of this humanitarian action more effective, ETH Zurich, EPFL and the ICRC launched the Engineering for Humanitarian Action initiative in December 2020. Its goal is to make knowledge and technologies from both universities available where they are critically needed: in humanitarian crises.

The programme provides financial support to specific projects run by EPFL and ETH Zurich labs. Two series of projects – 12 in all – have already been funded, with the first round now providing results to the ICRC. These will resolve logistical issues in healthcare provision, protect refugees through biometrics, make ICRC construction projects more sustainable, create new digital infrastructure to protect against cyberattacks and more.

“The collaboration shows how digital technologies and scientific expertise support the ICRC in carrying out its important work and thus help people in need,” says ETH President Joël Mesot.

“We are very much looking forward to seeing the real-world impact of the projects already completed or in progress, as well as new proposals,” adds EPFL President Martin Vetterli. “Our researchers are hugely motivated to contribute to a better world in these turbulent times.”

ICRC Vice-President Gilles Carbonnier explains: “Fast advances in science and technology offer huge potential to unlock innovation for greater humanitarian impact. As we turn research findings into action, there is much more to come!”

Generous donations by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), along with the Foundation for the ICRC, Rolex and the Fondation Lombard Odier will enable this initiative to continue with future calls for projects. “Bringing humanitarian action and science closer together, as this collaborative initiative will do, is how we ensure that technological development helps improve life for those that need it the most,” says SNF Co-President Andreas Dracopoulos.

Six projects to help the ICRC to meet its challenges

More sustainable construction in humanitarian aid

The construction of healthcare facilities and other basic infrastructure is an increasingly significant part of ICRC’s humanitarian work. To make these building projects as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible, the ICRC called upon teams from ETH Zurich and EPFL.

Many commercially-available environmental impact assessment tools are not suitable for humanitarian interventions because there is too little data available and the sustainability indicators often vary considerably. This collaboration focused on the development of web-based planning software tailored to the ICRC’s requirements.

The software uses checklists, visualisations and pointers to make users aware of how planning decisions can impact the sustainability of a building. “The ICRC will be able to determine what type of building is best suited to the local climate and natural hazards,” explains ETH Zurich researcher Giulia Celentano.

“Our software can be fed with information about a planned project very easily and intuitively,” adds ETH Zurich Professor Guillaume Habert, who worked on the tool in collaboration with researchers from the ETH Chair of Sustainable Construction, as well as EPFL’s André Ullal and other researchers from the Laboratory of Construction and Architecture (FAR/ENAC).

“By highlighting key sustainability principles in a simple way, the tool will help us make more informed decisions when designing our construction projects,” says ICRC’s Pavlos Tamvakis.

The assessment tool was presented this year to the World Urban Forum in Poland. In the Global Shelter Cluster in Geneva, many representatives from various humanitarian organisations such as UNOPS, UNHABITAT, NRC, UNHCR, Interaction and more have also expressed their interest.

AI estimates population density in crisis areas

Knowing how many people are living in an area affected by conflict helps the ICRC plan humanitarian measures more effectively, but this information is often difficult or impossible to obtain. ETH Zurich Professor Konrad Schindler and his EPFL colleague Devis Tuia are tackling this problem with data derived from satellite images that lets them describe an area in as much geographic detail as possible.

Information such as the number and size of buildings, the density of the road network and the ratio of woodland to built-up areas is fed into a self-learning neural network. “Building on publicly accessible geospatial data, we’re able to use artificial intelligence to estimate and map the population density of a given area,” Schindler says. “Based on the geographic context, the AI learns to draw conclusions about how the settlements are structured. For instance, it knows that buildings in city centres are taller than those on the outskirts. This allows for a finer granularity of population density.”

The researchers have already tested a prototype of their algorithm using data from several countries in Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda – all countries in which the ICRC is also active. They have produced a series of digital maps showing estimations of population per hectare. The team expects to deliver the software to the ICRC soon. “This partnership allows us to have access to state-of-the art technology that the ICRC doesn’t necessarily have the time (nor skills) to explore,” says ICRC’s Thao Ton That Whelan.

Better medical care through efficient logistics

Supplying medical products in conflict zones is challenging, with frequent bottlenecks and problems distributing essential goods. To improve logistics and thus enhance the quality of medical care during humanitarian crises, the ICRC has been collaborating with ETH Professor Stephan Wagner and Bublu Thakur-Weigold, from ETH’s Chair of Logistics Management, for the past two years.

Wagner and Thakur-Weigold have evaluated supply chains between an ICRC medical facility in Juba, South Sudan, and the organisation’s logistics headquarters in Geneva. They found that supply problems were being caused by an overly centralised planning system. Too many of the 270 medical products are still being ordered and distributed from Geneva. “But when it comes to frequently used consumer goods like bandages or certain medicines, it’s more effective to procure and distribute these goods locally,” Wagner says.

“Working with the ETH team has allowed us to scientifically check some ideas we had about the main supply chain issues and find ways to solve them,” says Ruben Naval Artal from the ICRC.

In the future, the ICRC will have access to an analysis tool developed by ETH Zurich researcher Thakur-Weigold, which will improve decisions such as how much of each article to keep on hand at each location. Hospitals and aid stations in crisis areas can be supplied with lifesaving products more reliably and cost-effectively.

Private biometrics for aid distribution

Humanitarian organisations must efficiently deliver aid while ensuring that they are fair in providing services to those that need it. In humanitarian emergencies, determining the identities of aid recipients is a challenging task, in part simply because many of the people affected don’t have or perhaps never had identification documents.

The use of biometrics – physical characteristics such as fingerprints or iris scans – can alleviate this problem, but it raises important privacy concerns, including the potential to expose beneficiaries’ personal data. The EPFL Spring Lab’s Professor Carmela Troncoso and Postdoctoral Fellow Wouter Lueks have developed a biometric system that protects personal information and is suitable for deployment in humanitarian settings.

The privacy improvements rest on two key insights. Firstly, the system is decentralised and users can keep their biometric data on tokens or other devices, mitigating the risk of data leaks and protecting user rights. Secondly, accountability can be ensured without large-scale data collection. “Only the total transaction and the number of families requesting aid are used,” says Lueks. “We use cryptography to hide individual transaction details while preserving accountability details.”

“This work is critical to us because leaked data in the wrong hands can be used for harmful purposes and even put people’s lives in danger,” says ICRC project partner Vincent Graf Narbel.

A secure digital infrastructure

In January this year, the ICRC was the victim of a sophisticated cyberattack. The attack compromised personal data and confidential information of more than 515,000 highly vulnerable people, including missing persons, people in detention and those separated from their families due to conflict, migration and disaster. The incident shows that in cyberspace, the ICRC and other humanitarian organisations must secure their infrastructure to protect vulnerable people against the most powerful adversaries.

A secure cloud architecture is one element needed to protect against unauthorised access and guarantees integrity and availability of the data. To offer better protection against cyberattacks, three ETH Zurich professors – Luca Benini, Srdjan Capkun and Adrian Perrig – have teamed up to develop a new digital infrastructure architecture to fit the ICRC’s needs and capacity. In addition to a customised network that safeguards metadata, it features the SCION technology developed at ETH Zurich and complete cloud architecture that is more resilient against cyberattacks. The infrastructure will also be protected by processors developed by ETH.

In the future, the ICRC and other humanitarian organisations can leverage this new architecture to confidentially communicate data more securely, both internally and with affected populations. “The objective of this project is well aligned with our ambition to work towards more security and independence in the digital sphere,” says ICRC’s Vincent Graf Narbel.

Harmful information used against humanitarian organisations

Disinformation and hateful rhetoric are common tools used to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and incite violence – including against humanitarian organisations. In 2018, aid workers from the ICRC combatting Ebola found themselves to be victims of disinformation campaigns, which led to violence. EPFL Professor Karl Aberer of the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory and his team are developing technical methods to monitor and combat misinformation directed against humanitarian organisations on social media.

By looking at how weaponised information impacts humanitarian organisations and determining what can be learned about the methods employed to carry out these attacks, they have gained insights to help prevent future attacks and preserve humanitarian organisations’ security in the field.

“Preventing disinformation attacks against humanitarian organisations and their workers is important to the ICRC, to ensure we can reach out to the persons in need and deliver aid,” says Fabrice Lauper of the ICRC.

This article was first published on 6 October by EPFL.

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