Meet the Light Savers: How five El Paso students used AI to speed up emergency response times

On the street outside Joseph Baca’s home in El Paso, Texas, there is a traffic light that always seems to be red. Whether the intersection is clear, the traffic waits. And waits. And waits some more.

This bothers Baca. He knows that, like most traffic lights in El Paso, this one has a camera. Why, he often said to his family, couldn’t the camera be used to monitor the road and control the signal?

That question eventually led to the development of an idea that could save not only time but also, potentially, lives.

Baca, 24, is a computer science major at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), specializing in visual recognition. Like many avid programmers, he started entering hackathons – events where teams compete to find novel ways of solving problems. He met a kindred spirit in fellow UTEP student Jonathan Argumedo, 21, who has a love for website building and cybersecurity.

The pair set their sights on winning a hackathon and assembled a team whose skills would complement their own: Christopher Mendoza, Carlos Alcantara and Jorge Ramirez Carrasco – all students at UTEP, but strangers until then.

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Bringing a community together

The January hackathon that the five entered, organized by Microsoft, had a particular focus. The El Paso Strong Hackathon was a response to the August 2019 mass shooting that left 22 people dead and 24 injured. The aim of the hackathon was to bring people together by building a safer, stronger El Paso, and to leverage the latest technology to find creative, innovative solutions to some of the toughest issues facing the greater El Paso community.

The El Paso Strong hackathon
The El Paso Strong hackathon

The El Paso-Juárez corridor is one of six regions in North America that plays host to Microsoft’s TechSpark program, a civic initiative that fosters economic opportunity and job creation in partnership with local communities. Through TechSpark, Microsoft supports the introduction of transformational technologies into the local economy through investments in computer science education in high schools, high-speed broadband, technology for non-profits and digital skills development such as hackathons.

JJ Childress, TechSpark manager for El Paso, explains the motivation behind the event. “It was going back to the idea that technology can be used to hurt and damage communities. Or it can be used to solve some of the problems here.”

[Read More: How AI can help save lives in emergencies]

Rising to the challenge

Over the weekend of January 31, 2020, dozens of talented young problem-solvers came together from both sides of the border that lies between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The challenge was broad: come up with a workable idea on the themes of community, safety or education.

The city of El Paso had fitted cameras to its traffic lights to identify people running through red signals, but their use had been banned by the state of Texas. Baca thought that the cameras could be used to cut waiting times at the lights for all vehicles, and flush traffic out of the path of first responders as they made their way to emergencies. In some situations, even a few minutes could mean the difference between life or death.

As Baca puts it: “We’re saving time at the lights, and saving lives with the time.”

[Read More: How AI is helping map the world’s most vulnerable places]

Ingenuity and teamwork

Turning Baca’s idea into a workable model in just 24 hours drew on the skills and talent of all five members of the team. Even though they had never worked together before, the Light Savers quickly found their roles: developing an algorithm that saved any vehicle an average of seven seconds at every intersection; using machine learning to train a neural network: running a simulation that would prove the concept; and presenting their work to the judging panel.

Animation showing traffic flow differences
A simulation showing the way the traffic lights currently work on the left, and, on the right, how they would work using the Light Savers’ algorithm

“Everybody just played their part,” says Argumedo, “and when that happens, when the team contributes and everybody plays their part, it tends to be a very good experience.”

Their work was enough to win first prize in the hackathon – and the team hopes it won’t end there. But they are under no illusions about the size of the investment, in terms of both time and money, that putting their idea into practice would require. “We all have jobs, and we all go to school,” says Baca. “It requires resources for us to be able to accomplish something like this. I would love to see it implemented in real life; I would love to see cities using it. We put the idea out there so people can do it.”

[Read more: TechSpark El Paso-Juárez: Igniting digital transformation throughout the Borderplex]

Hub of talent

For Childress, the hackathon proved what he has always known – that El Paso-Ciudad Juárez is a wellspring of untapped potential. “Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not. And TechSpark is really focused on how we create opportunity in the communities we serve.”

El Paso Light Savers
The Light Savers team: from left, Jonathan Argumedo, Joseph Baca, Christopher Mendoza, Carlos Alcantara and Jorge Ramirez Carrasco

In Argumedo’s eyes, the enterprising spirit of El Paso’s residents makes them ideal candidates. “People don’t realize it, but we tend to be very good hackers,” he says. “We try to do something to fix our needs. When it comes to hackathons, we tend to be very good at them because we do that in our everyday lives.”

For Baca, digital skills are the key to doing what he really loves. “What I’m passionate about is helping a lot of people when it comes to using computer science and programming, because I know programming is not used in a lot of things that it definitely could be used in.”

Like making sure that the red lights outside his house turn green to speed the emergency services on their way.

For more on how Microsoft is working with communities to create economic opportunity, visit Microsoft TechSpark. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.