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Brown University student named winner in MIT’s Latin America versus COVID-19 hackathon

Valerie Aguilar Dellisanti ’23 collaborated with students from Harvard, MIT, Stanford on SMS system solution to COVID-19 hotline

In June, Valerie Aguilar Dellisanti ’23 and her team — who represented the University, Harvard, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — competed and won MIT’s virtual hackathon event: Latin America vs. COVID-19.

The team worked virtually over 48 hours to create their winning project, “Simi”: an automated text messaging system that seeks to relieve some of the pressures on COVID-19 hotlines in Peru by answering user questions. 

The algorithm the team created answers questions to determine whether a user requires COVID-19 testing. If a user’s responses indicated that they were not at a high-risk for the virus, they would be followed up with chat questions to monitor their progress. But if users’ responses indicated that they were experiencing difficulty breathing, for example, they would be immediately transferred to the emergency hotline. 

Currently, the Peruvian hotline system has wait times between thirty minutes and two hours, prompting many to resort to the internet for answers, said Valerie Wu, a student majoring in symbolic systems and product design at Stanford and one of the team members. The COVID-19 hotline is also often clogged with prank calls, adding to the wait time, she added.

“We modeled the (questions) according to the (Peruvian) government’s self-reporting website,” said Rodrigo Chaname, who is majoring in computer science and economics at Harvard. He added that it was challenging to rewrite the website’s questions so the average user could easily understand them. 

“We want Simi to be an additional channel that can flow into what already exists,” Wu said. 

Each hackathon team was assigned one of 10 themes based on the interests participants had expressed in their applications. Ultimately 20 to 25 teams were assigned to each theme. Winners were then chosen based on the four criteria: impact, innovation, implementation and presentation, Fiorelli Penagos Celis, the head of marketing and communications for the Latin America vs. COVID-19 event, told The Herald. 

Aguilar Dellisanti’s team competed in the “health systems asset coordination, distribution, and conversion” focus area and was one of the three winning groups selected from that track. 

The team was particularly “worried about how the (pandemic affected) people in rural areas” given “the deep inequalities when it comes to access to health care” in Peru and other Latin American countries, said Marcelo Peña, a team member who is a computer science major at Stanford.

The lack of internet access in rural parts of Peru makes finding answers online difficult, said Aguilar Dellisanti, a potential computer science-economics and international and political affairs concentrator. She first developed an interest in computer science when she decided to take the introductory course CSCI 0111: “Computing Foundations: Data.” 

“I would not be part of hackathons if it was not for the open curriculum,” she said. “My best decision was coming to Brown.”

The Latin America vs. COVID-19 hackathon was one of six in a series of virtual hackathons hosted by MIT. Collectively referred to as the MIT COVID-19 Challenge, they each focused on the pandemic from a global level, Alfonso Martinez, MIT Sloan MBA’20 and co-director of the MIT COVID-19 Challenge, said. The series has drawn over 4500 participants from over 115 countries. “The goal of this initiative and the goal of each one of these events is to create teams that can have an impact on this (COVID-19) crisis in the short term,” he added.

Eighty percent of the Latin America vs. COVID-19 event’s competitors lived in Latin America, with most of the region’s countries represented at the hackathon, Martinez said. North America, Asia and Europe were also represented. The event virtually brought together about 1500 students and professionals. It was conducted in English, Spanish and Portugese with the final presentations delivered in English, Penagos Celis said.

Aguilar Dellisanti virtually met and bonded with her team of six through this hackathon event over their shared native Spanish-speaking and undergraduate identities. “We all actually have experiences in the system and family there,” she said. 

The teams received active mentorship from 300 professionals from all over the world. One of Aguilar Dellisanti’s team’s many mentors was John Bigda MSc’20, who studied executive health care leadership in the School of Professional Studies. 

“I think the mentors were amazing,” Aguilar Dellisanti said, adding that it was refreshing to see so many people “interested in solving the (COVID-19) problem in Latin America,” despite not sharing that background, like Bigda. 

The team was “able to articulate very clearly the problem and how they want to attack it,” Bigda said. At the same time, adopting a “cross-institutional” approach helped the team take different perspectives into account, which enhanced their project, he added. “Public health crises are not linear; they are circular,” he said. They “are not simple and require iterative multidisciplinary solutions.”

As winners, Aguilar Dellisanti’s team received $300 and $1000 in Amazon Web Service credits. Winning teams could also receive additional funding if they were interested in creating a startup from their project.

The hackathon organizers “plan to continue to support the teams … (and) connect them with the partners they need” through “marketing, mentorship and matchmaking with partners,” Martinez said.

The team is moving their idea forward and working on developing a collaboration with telecommunications companies in Latin America. “We are in conversations so that this can go on to become a national implementation in Peru,” said Jorge Armenta, a team member majoring in management science and engineering at Stanford. 

The other members of the team included Jose Lavariega,
 an aerospace engineering and business analytics major at MIT, and Santiago Hernandez, a computer science major from Stanford.

“The spirit of our group’s (accomplishment) is that we can use our own people to solve (Latin American issues) in the best way,” Peña said.


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