Tailoring digital responses for humanitarian action

EPFL is playing a leading role in partnering with humanitarian organizations to develop technological solutions to improve their operations while mitigating risks.
© 2024 EPFL

Armed conflicts are at an historic high globally and, according to the UN, more than 360 million people are today in need of humanitarian assistance. In conflicts and other crisis situations, the risks and opportunities presented by new technologies are intensely magnified.

EPFL has been pioneering partnerships with humanitarian organizations, via its EssentialTech Centre since 2015. Numerous EPFL labs are involved in projects collaborating with humanitarian organizations to develop solutions to improve services and mitigate specific digital risks associated with humanitarian action. An exhibition currently running at EPFL Pavilions, Digital Dilemmas: Humanitarian Consequences, as well as an upcoming conference (see info below) on the subject, also demonstrate the institution’s commitment to raising awareness among academe and the public.

“By partnering with EPFL, our organization can tap into leading scientific knowledge to address such highly complex issues,” says Prof. Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “In the digital age, we must stay at the forefront to meet our commitment to helping people affected by armed conflict and violence. This is critical due to the specificities of the situations we face, tapping into scientific advances for greater humanitarian impact, but also preventing the harm that digital technologies can have.”

«It is important that the academic community get involved in the development of solutions that are more tailored to the needs of the humanitarian community. »      Professor Carmela Troncoso, head of SPRING, EPFL

The needs of vulnerable populations are different than those encountered in regular situations in the western world. In a typical non-crisis context, you may worry that sharing personal data through technology use leads to annoying targeted advertising. But in a conflict zone, a personal data leak can put users’ lives at risk. Prof. Carmela Troncoso, Head of the Security and Privacy Engineering Laboratory (SPRING), says that raising awareness among academics and the public can help enable “solutions better suited to those situations, rather than making them increase their risk just because something is ok in our Western life.”

She adds: “It is important that the academic community get involved in the development of solutions that are more tailored to the needs of the humanitarian community. Commercial partners tend to base protection on trusting service providers and assume users could choose some other solution if they do not agree with their conditions. When using digital solutions in humanitarian contexts, users participating in the systems will most likely be in very bad, vulnerable situations – any leak of information may be harmful for them. Moreover, they will often not have the luxury of being able to refuse participation on a digital system.”

The SPRING lab partnered with the ICRC Data Protection Office in a project called PriBAD: Private Biometrics for Aid Distribution, which developed a method to protect recipients’ personal privacy, while distributing aid fairly and providing due diligence for donors. The biometrics-based system uses a smartphone or a smart card, depending on resource availability, such as connectivity.

The PriBAD project is among eight projects from the Engineering for Humanitarian Action (EHA) collaboration presented at Digital Dilemmas. These are integrated into an interactive experience that puts visitors into the shoes of civilians and humanitarians in conflict zones, confronting them with a variety of digital challenges. In addition to biometrics, other themes explored include disinformation, data protection, surveillance, connectivity, civilians in conflict, as well as the roles artificial intelligence plays in deepfakes, weapons and decision-making.

Troncoso says PriBAD and the other projects in the exhibition demonstrate show that researchers have the capacity to develop solutions that can mitigate risks and leverage technology to improve humanitarian responses. Yet she underscores that “concrete solutions require talking about concrete problems. Unfortunately, we don’t have a universal solution that can address the challenges in general.”

Dr. Gregoire Castella, Head of the Humanitarian Division at the EssentialTech Centre, which coordinates EHA at EPFL, builds on this, saying: “It is critical that solutions for humanitarian digital challenges be developed in close collaboration with humanitarian organizations like the ICRC. They are the ones who experience and know the issues. In these situations, it isn’t enough for us to develop something in our labs and go to them saying, ‘here, we’ve got something innovative – use it’. To use a strong word, that backfires. Rather, we need to start with understanding specific issues, then working together on bespoke solutions.”

Carbonnier emphasizes that the need for highly innovative solutions is urgent: “Insecurity and vulnerability are at an all-time high, in an ever-changing landscape. This is seen in the plight of those experiencing the combined impact of armed conflict, climate change, food shortages, forced displacement and the like. The opportunities and risks associated with new technologies in all these situations must be appropriately addressed. Digital Dilemmas helps raise awareness and involve various stakeholders in crafting solutions, including humanitarians, academia, government, the private sector and, first and foremost, affected people themselves.”