Managing humanitarian aid is one of the most important problems in the modern world. It is also a very powerful and direct approach to make a lasting global impact. Keeping that in context, experts at ETH Zurich and EPFL–two of Switzerland’s leading federal institutes of technology–have joined hands with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to launch the Engineering Humanitarian Aid initiative.

The partnership brings scientific and technological expertise to tackle three crucial dimensions of humanitarian aid: energy and the environment; data sciences and digital technologies; and personalized health and related technologies. Having worked together on numerous occasions in the past, the three partners will promote developmental cooperation in the field by harnessing digital technology and engineering skills.

Some projects are already underway. Among them is a project led by Carmela Troncoso, professor at EPFL’s Security and Privacy Engineering Laboratory and member of the EcoCloud faculty. The project addresses privacy issues related to biometric data, which seeks to identify the ICRC’s on-the-ground security and privacy requirements when processing beneficiaries’ biometric data, and to design a system that keeps these data confidential.

Another ongoing project uses artificial intelligence to map vulnerable populations. It seeks to compile information from satellite images and social media posts to estimate the size and density of these populations, as well as associated information such as settlement type and changes in population. The work is being conducted by Konrad Schindler and Devis Tuia (EPFL).

In the area of technology for personalized healthcare, a project led by ETH Zurich’s Stephan Wagner aims to augment the availability of medical equipment in conflict zones and reduce wastage.

The collaborators are likely to expand the program over the next year to initiate several joint projects to develop and distribute innovative products and processes. At EPFL, efforts under the initiative are being coordinated by the EssentialTech Center, while at ETH Zurich they are being managed by ETH for Development (ETH4D). The ETH Board has allocated CHF 5 million as seed funding for the projects over a two-year period (2021–22).