Following the official launch of the Engineering Humanitarian Aid partnership, EPFL’s Humanitarian Tech Hub is proud to announce that six research projects have been awarded, including two that will be implemented by EPFL research teams and 2 in collaboration with ETH Zurich.


Humanitarian organizations – and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in particular – are facing increasing challenges. In 2019, an estimated 216 million people needed humanitarian assistance in 69 countries¹. Intensifying conflicts, the consequences of climate change, and the spread of infectious diseases are threatening vulnerable populations. Increasing digitisation presents new challenges for humanitarian organizations in terms of data protection and cybersecurity. Innovative approaches to strengthen humanitarian action are needed now more than ever.

As institutions committed to leveraging research and innovation to address the most pressing challenges of our time, EPFL and ETH Zurich have formed a collaboration with the ICRC to develop innovative solutions for a greater impact of humanitarian action: the Engineering Humanitarian Aid initiative. This initiative will focus on issues that impact humanitarian action, including the environment, energy, data sciences, digital technologies and personalized health.

As part of this initiative, EPFL, ETH Zurich and the ICRC issued a joint call for proposals: the Humanitarian Action Challenges (HAC). Researchers from both universities were invited to submit independent or joint proposals to support the ICRC in its mission to protect and assist people affected by conflict and armed violence. The call is managed for EPFL by the Humanitarian Tech Hub, a joint initiative of the ICRC and EPFL established in 2016 and hosted at the EssentialTech Center. In Zürich it is managed by ETH4D.

A scientific committee comprising faculty of the participating institutions has selected a total of six innovative projects, two of which will be carried out by ETHZ researchers, two by EPFL researchers, and two as joint projects by researchers from both universities.


[1] Development Initiatives (2020): Global humanitarian assistance report 2020, p. 24. URL:


Awarded Projects

Collaborative Projects between the ICRC and EPFL

Private Biometrics for Aid Distribution

Humanitarian organizations have a responsibility to ensure the efficient delivery of aid as well as fair selection of its recipients. In humanitarian emergencies, determining the identities of aid recipients is a challenging task that could be greatly facilitated through the use of biometrics. Biometrics, particularly in humanitarian emergencies, raise important privacy concerns, including the potential to expose beneficiaries’ personal data. The ICRC has adopted a policy on biometrics which considers these challenges, and highlights areas where further research and development is needed. On the basis of this, this project aims to design a biometric system suitable for deployment in humanitarian settings without endangering their beneficiaries’ personal information.

PI: Prof. Carmela Troncoso, Spring Lab, EPFL
Partners: ICRC

Harmful Information Against Humanitarian Organizations

Disinformation and hateful rhetoric, often called information warfare, are frequently used tools to fuel ethnic and religious tensions and incite violence – including against humanitarian organizations. In 2018, aid workers combating Ebola (including those at the Red Cross) found themselves to be victims of disinformation campaigns, which led to violence. This project aims to develop technical methods to combat disinformation directed against humanitarian organizations on social media. It aims to uncover how weaponized information impacts humanitarian organizations and to determine what can be learned about the methods employed to carry out these attacks. The overarching goal of this project is help prevent future attacks and improve security in the field.

PI: Prof. Karl Aberer, Laboratoire de systèmes d’information répartis, EPFL
Partners: ICRC

Collaborative Projects between the ICRC, ETH Zurich, and EPFL

Mapping Vulnerable Populations with AI

This project will support the ICRC to precisely map local populations to improve the effective planning of humanitarian action. The goal of this project is to estimate population size and density, as well as related information such as settlement type and population changes. This information will be sourced from satellite images and social media posts, analysed using machine learning algorithms, and then integrated with detailed, spatially resolved population maps. This will help the ICRC to better plan its humanitarian response by estimate the size of conflict-affected populations and potential returnees.



Sustainable Construction in Humanitarian Action

Current technologies and systems supporting sustainable construction methods are ill-suited to the conflict-affected, often resource-strapped settings where the ICRC works. This project will adapt and extend existing technologies and systems that promote sustainable construction to provide guidance on how to use environmental impact assessment tools in humanitarian action. Moreover, the project will develop a digital platform that supports the sustainable design, operation, and maintenance of humanitarian buildings and infrastructure. The goal of this project is to improve the sustainability of ICRC construction projects, particularly with regard to their impact on water and local habitat.



  • ICRC

Collaborative Projects between the ICRC and ETH Zurich

Decision-Making for Cost-Effective Medical Supply

The project will support the ICRC to improve the reliable distribution of medical supplies in conflict zones. Based on the analysis of several years of data from ICRC’s medical supply chain as well as a qualitative study of the ICRC’s organisational and process configurations, the project will identify root causes of poor information flow, model potential improvements, and propose implementable solutions. The goal is to avoid waste, and improve the availability of medicines for a better quality of service for conflict-affected populations.

PI: Prof. Stephan Wagner, Logistics Management, D-MTEC, ETH Zurich
Partners: ICRC

Secure Infrastructure for Humanitarian Organizations

The increasing digitisation of humanitarian data risks making humanitarian organisations the targets of sophisticated attackers. Approaches are needed for secure computation in cloud environments, accompanied by secure global communication. To tackle this challenge, this project aims to create a

mobile device and cloud computation platform to secure highly sensitive humanitarian data as well as a communication infrastructure that enables secure and privacy-preserving access to this platform.

PI: Prof. Adrian Perrig, Network Security Group, D-INFK, ETH Zurich
Partners: ICRC , Neutrality


    Pictures ©ICRC