SIMI Mexican Stanford
(Photo: Courtesy of SIMI)

Santiago Hernández and his classmates have proposed a project to deal with genuine Covid-19 cases and eliminate fake queries.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Mexico, queries about symptoms have been accompanied by hoax calls to emergency services such as 911.

Thousands of people in Mexico have been infected with the disease, and at least 28,510 have died from it. However, that has not stopped people from abusing the hotline.

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Data from the Ministry of Citizen Safety and Protection indicate that between January and March, when the first cases of SARS-CoV-2 occurred in Mexico and lockdown began, 7 out of 10 calls to the 911 emergency number were hoax calls. Santiago Hernández and his colleagues wanted to stop this.

Hernández (who’s studying at Stanford) and his classmates want attention to be given efficiently to real cases nationwide, including places where there is no internet connection. This is done through a chatbot called SIMI, which identifies people through their personal ID number (CURP) in Mexico or national identification document (DNI) in Peru.

“Three of us Mexicans teamed up with another four Peruvian friends, one Peruvian from Brown University and another studying at Harvard. Seven of us Latin Americans came together to combat the problems we’ve seen in our countries and across Latin America,” said Hernández (21) who’s in his second year of studying computer science at Stanford.

The problem they’d noticed had to do with hoax calls to emergency numbers for dealing with coronavirus cases, meaning that the attention given to real cases was less effective.

With the chatbot they created, caller identification prevents the hotline from being used for prank calls, since the system will only provide the service to a citizen registered with a CURP or a DNI number.

What’s more, the proposal works using SMS (text) messages. Unlike the Susana Distancialine (which uses WhatsApp), it does not require an internet connection and can thus reach remote places which do have cellphone coverage.

The birth of the project

All seven Latin Americans took part in the Covid-19 Challenge, which was organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

1,500 people from 73 countries participated in the challenge, including students, professionals, engineers, doctors, researchers, and others interested in proposing solutions to issues raised by the current pandemic.

“We were the winners in our category, which was ‘Access to Public Health Resources’. The program offered us some contacts, and agreements with potential partners, to help us continue developing this system. We are in talks with the Ministry of Health in Peru and with some technology companies like Claro, and we’re looking for something similar in Mexico,” said Hernández.

Right now, the team are seeking support to bring this chatbot to governments in Mexico and Peru, and to encourage the widespread use of the system which works through user verification.

Once the SIMI system detects that it is dealing with a real person, a process of questions begins to determine if there could be a Covid-19 case.

A quick creation

It took the students two weeks of intensive work to be able to present their chatbot proposal at the contest. At the moment, they’re seeking investment and are in contact with the health agencies of both countries so as to be able to bring this tool to the general public.

“This week, we’ve been working hard on the prototype, so we have at least got a demo version that we can show to authorities and organizations for them to see the potential and value that this tool has,” he told Tec Review from Palo Alto, California.

Hernández estimates that in a maximum of eight weeks, they can have a complete version ready, revealing the scope of a solution that could be provided at national level to many “thousands of users”.

As students, they are also fundraising to continue supporting their project.

“We’ve made preliminary estimates of the costs of technology, servers, integration with text messages, and so on. We think that with around $100,000 USD we can do all the development and production,” although he points out that it will be necessary to consider the costs of meeting the needs of the different health systems in each country.

The minds behind SIMI

Hernández began to appear in the news thanks to his acting work in various Televisa productions. Alongside his acting career, he continued studying and founded a data mining startup as well as a platform for educational content.

Valerie Aguilar

A Peruvian studying her first year of Computer Science, Economics & International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She’s interested in finance, bilateral relations, data analysis, strategic consulting, and advocacy for indigenous groups.

Jorge Armenta

Freshman at Stanford, studying Management Science & Engineering. The native of Nogales, Sonora, is mainly focused on technology, finance, and entrepreneurship.

Valeria Wu

Peruvian student in her second year at Stanford University, where she studies Computer Science, Neuroscience, and Philosophy. She’s interested in working in creative spaces that use technology and ‘human-centered design’ to develop inclusive futures.

Rodrigo Chaname

He’s Peruvian, is a second-year student at Harvard studying computer science and economics. He’s interested in the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship. Rodrigo is currently launching a social impact venture in Bogotá and is participating in a strategic consulting program for a business incubator in Seattle, Washington.

José Ángel Lavariega

He’s originally from Monterrey and is studying a double major in Aerospace Engineering and Data Science at MIT. He’s interested in the continued development of the aerospace industry through robust robotics, and perception and control systems in satellites, rovers, and exploration craft. He was co-founder of Higia, a company that treats patients at risk of developing breast cancer.

Marcelo Peña

He’s Peruvian, is studying the first year of Computer Science Engineering, with a concentration in Artificial Intelligence, at Stanford University. In Peru, he was a key part of the software engineering team which created the Masi mechanical ventilator, the first biomedical device developed in Peru’s history.

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