Several R&D projects provide the relevant scientific outcome to constantly improve our operational services and to ensure innovation and effective uptake.

short facts X3D4Pop

Project Title

X3D4Pop: Suitability of mixed-satellite-sensor derived 3D data for rapid urban population estimation in crisis situations

Project partners

Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS, Salzburg, Austria [Project leader]
UNIGE-GRID, Geneva, Switzerland
Austrian Institute of Technology – AIT / Energy Department
German Aerospace Center DLR [in kind]


Austrian Research Promotion Agency (German: Österreichische Forschungsförderungsgesellschaft or FFG) under the Austrian Space Applications Programme (ASAP 13, Nr. 859796) and Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft

Duration May 2017 – May 2018
Budget 200,000 €
Project objectives

How many people live in a given city? This seemingly simple question very often arises in the daily work of MSF (Doctors without Borders) or SOS Children’s Villages. Activities like a vaccination campaign or the preparation for natural disasters require up-to-date population figures, and with more and more people moving into cities, the sprawling urban areas move more and more into the focus of aid and relief organisations.

Population numbers can be estimated from the number of buildings mapped in remote sensing data, but in urban areas, 3D data is required to account for the building heights. The research project X3D4Pop, which was kicked off in Salzburg on 16th May 2017, aims at exploring the potential of 3D data derived from satellite image pairs initially not acquired for stereo data production, as dedicated stereo image pairs are often missing. Can image pairs from different satellites, acquired at different times, be used to derive building heights?

X3D4Pop brings together experts in photogrammetry from the German Aerospace Center DLR and dasymetric mappingfrom the Austrian Institute of Technology AIT and the Swiss UNEP/GRID-Geneva, and is led by Z_GIS to further enlarge the portfolio of remote sensing services for humanitarian relief organisations. X3D4Pop is funded by the Austrian FFG, the Swiss Space Office SSO, and the DLR.

short facts EO4HumEn+


Project Title

EO4HumEn+: Extended EO-based services for dynamic information needs in humanitarian action

Project partners



Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS, Salzburg, Austria [Project leader]
Austrian Red Cross
Earth Observation Center (EOC) of the German Aerospace Center DLR [with own funding]
- Spatial Services GmbH, Salzburg, Austria
University Tübingen, Department of Geography, Germany [Subcontractor] 
Groundwater Relief [Subcontractor]

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) [associated]
SOS Children's Villages [associated]
Doctors without Borders Section Austria [associated]

logos of partners in EO4HumEn+




Austrian Research Promotion Agency (German: Österreichische Forschungsförderungsgesellschaft or FFG) under the Austrian Space Applications Programme (ASAP 12, Nr. 854041)

Duration May 2016 – April 2018
Budget 430,000 €


Project objectives

The number of forcibly uprooted people rises every year. Humanitarian action as one part of the response to this situation relies on targeted, up-to date and reliable information to handle this challenge. Within precursor activities and a close collaboration with Doctors without Borders (MSF), Z_GIS has started developing Earth-observation (EO) based solutions for the humanitarian sector. Thereby we address the following challenges:

(1) large numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide live not only in camps, but more than half of the world’s refugee population under UNHCR mandate lives in urban settings,

(2) monitoring of environmental resources like groundwater or wood reserves is a concern of humanitarian actors, but the current EO-based solutions are seldom automated and therefore do not tap the full potential of the immense amounts of satellite data, and

(3) there is an increasing demand for a diversified product portfolio within a growing user community.

The aim of the project EO4HumEn+ is to implement more automated routines to exploit the data stream of e.g. the Sentinel mission, improving the capabilities of EO methods to provide realistic population estimations also in urban areas as well as extend the established service portfolio to the diversifying needs of the humanitarian community, cooperating with a wide range of NGOs including ICRC, the Austrian Red Cross, SOS Children’s Villages, MSF and Groundwater Relief.


short facts EO4HumEn


Project Title

EO4HumEn: EO-based services to support humanitarian operations: monitoring population and natural resources in refugee/IDP camps

Project partners



Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, Interfaculty Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS, Salzburg, Austria [Project leader]
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Austria, Programme Department
Paris-Lodron University of Salzburg, Department of Geography and Geology, Salzburg, Austria
University Tübingen, Department of Geography, Germany [Subcontractor]




Austrian Research Promotion Agency (German: Österreichische Forschungsförderungsgesellschaft or FFG) under the Austrian Space Applications Programme (ASAP 9, Nr. 840081)

Duration October 2013 – March 2016
Budget 475,000 €


Project objectives

The overall objective of the EO4HumEn project is to develop operational, EO-based services and products in support to humanitarian action and relief support.

The products will be developed in line with user requirements, which are being assessed and defined within the project.

From a technical point of view robust, automated methods of image analysis routines should be developed for population estimation, identification of potential groundwater extraction sites and monitoring the environmental impact of refugee/IDP camps. The derived products will be technically validated and provided via a web-portal for visualization.

Overall concept of the EO4HumEn project

With respect to the need for (geo-)information, humanitarian relief activities can be divided into three phases: (1) emergency relief, (2) care and maintenance (monitoring) and (3) repatriation/resettlement (rehabilitation). These phases come along with different needs: (1) short-term needs (0-6 months) during the emergency relief phase, (2) mid-term needs (0.5 to 5 years) during the care and maintenance phase and (3) long-term needs (> 5 years) during the care and maintenance as well as the repatriation or resettlement phase.

The EO4HumEn project aims at addressing such short- and mid-term needs.

When taking on a humanitarian mission the relief community often has only very limited knowledge of the area, the number of people involved, their distribution, and condition, etc. As a result, in the emergency phase, information about the population in need (i.e. population numbers, densities, camp size) and potential (ground) water resources in the vicinity are urgently required (short-term needs).

Rapid population expansion within an area and an increase in refugee/IDP activities such as firewood collection, use of water sources, agricultural activities, etc. often lead to overexploitation of natural resources and put enormous pressure on the environment. Particularly in areas where livelihoods and food security depend on the availability of natural resources, changes in land use / land cover (LULC) may lead to conflicts over resources, especially if the resource base is already overexploited. Therefore, during the care and maintenance phase, it is crucial to assess the impact of refugee or IDP camps on the surrounding environment (mid-term need).

Most camps are highly dynamic in nature. Camp populations increase or decrease within short time frames, and people tend to resettle within the camp. The specific dynamics of such camps require adaptive monitoring capacities which provide updated information concerning the structure of the camp, population characteristics as well as environmental changes in the vicinity of the camp. 


short facts cooperation with MSF


Z_GIS is providing EO-based information products to MSF since 2011. These information products are mainly related to population monitoring, but also information related to environmental resouces (incl. water availability) are requested. The obtained information is used as a critical asset to better organise vaccination campaigns (against measles, cholera, yellow fever, etc.), for medical, food- and-shelter logistics, planning of vector control programs, for drilling water wells, estimates of casualties after camp attacks, as well as assessing damaged areas after floods or earthquakes.

These services were supported by Karl-Kahane foundation from 2012 - 2019.

This article describes the benefits of Earth observation for MSF.  

Brief history of the cooperation Z_GIS - MSF:

2006 - 2008: exploring new application domain
Methodological concepts for refugee camp mapping (FP-6 projects GMOSS/LIMES)
Indirect user contacts (e.g. UNHCR, etc.)

2008 - 2010: set up MSF collaboration
2008: returning MSF team member invited (‘live experience’)
2008: participation at MSF Exhibition
2010: preparation of MSF-Z_GIS MoU (Memorandum of Understanding)

2011 - ongoing: operational services
2011: starting operational services ‘Population tool’, ‘Water tool'
2012 - 2019: support from Karl-Kahane foundation
Copernicus ‘success story’ in humanitarian domain
Presented at Humanitarian congresses in Vienna, Berlin, etc. and various scientific conferences