Understanding how technology can revolutionize humanitarian work

© 2017 ICRC

© 2017 ICRC

A new EPFL course offers students the opportunity to learn more about how new technologies can be used by humanitarian organizations. The students critically assessed new information-sharing methods by conducting a real-life exercise using the app Civique, which was developed by the Idiap Research Institute, an EPFL partner institution.

Mobile phones, Twitter and satellite images have revolutionized how humanitarian organizations conduct their work in countries devastated by war or natural disaster. A new course offered by EPFL this spring gives students a better grasp of the impact that new communication technologies can have on the ground. The course is offered as part of the social and human sciences program, which aims to increase students’ awareness of major issues and challenges the world will face in the future.

“Our goal is to make future engineers aware of the current humanitarian situation so that they know what sort of impact their training can have in this field,” explained Isabelle Vonèche Cardia, who is teaching the course together with Adrian Holzer. Students find out how big data, smartphones and geographic information systems (GIS) factor into on-the-ground decision-making. “Analyzing tweets during a natural disaster can play a crucial role. We now know that if we’d done this back in 2010, we could have detected the cholera outbreaks in Haiti two weeks earlier than was possible with more conventional methods,” said Holzer.

The course also looks at ways to improve the response to a crisis, covering everything from re-establishing communications to setting up community warning systems and participatory mapping. “It is also essential for organizations to communicate among themselves by freely sharing data – and that they follow ethical guidelines when using this information,” said Holzer.

A campus-based exercise

To get a better understanding of information-sharing methods such as crowdsourcing, which involves collecting data via smartphones, the students conducted an exercise on campus using Civique. This app was developed by the Idiap Research Institute – an EPFL partner institution – with funding from Loterie Romande. It enables communities to weigh in on matters affecting them, from urban infrastructure problems to street harassment – an issue that was tested in Lausanne last year. “Civique works by collecting information via smartphones. You can, for instance, ask people to reply to a survey or take photos that contain data about the shot’s location,” explained Daniel Gatica-Perez, head of the Social Computing group at Idiap and a professor at EPFL.

During the exercise, the students collected information on campus just as they would during a natural disaster. “The aim was to see whether we could get an objective view of the situation by combining all the data collected,” said Holzer. Once the pitfalls of crowdsourcing – such as technical problems, low participation rate and insufficiently verified data – had been assessed, the students were made aware of the issues surrounding data usage. “Who collected the information? Who has access to it? And how can it be used? Students must take a critical approach in this regard,” said Holzer.

It turns out that classroom technology can also help provide humanitarian relief in the field. SpeakUp, which was developed for teaching purposes at EPFL and the University of Lausanne, has, for instance, been used in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Author: Sarah Bourquenoud

Source: EPFL