Using artificial intelligence to fight coronavirus: Tunisia responds to the pandemic

Swift action is needed to tackle coronavirus. In Tunisia, too, digital experts are working hard to find solutions. And these are already being used around the world.

Like everyone around the world, Mustapha Hamdi has been following the serious outbreak of COVID-19 in recent weeks. He decided to take action. At the National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology in Tunis, he and his team are using intelligent computer technology to fight coronavirus. ‘I am convinced that digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI) can play a vital role in containing and overcoming the pandemic,’ he says.

Hamdi normally lectures and conducts research on topics such as the Internet of Things and microrobotics. In mid-March he launched an initiative that brings together researchers and Tunisian and international digital companies and start-ups. With the help of AI and data analysis, they want to identify symptoms of COVID-19 more quickly on chest X-rays of potentially infected people. The software can already accurately detect disease in 90 per cent of cases, and with additional images the rate should improve.

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Within just a few days, the group developed and programmed a corresponding application with support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and IBM’s Watson AI program. They started by feeding tens of thousands of pulmonary images from hospitals in China, Italy and Spain into the software to teach it. A few days ago, they made the user interface available for free on the internet. Users from all over the world can upload X-ray images into the program and receive an analysis result within 15 seconds. ‘At the moment I can see users from France, Belgium, Germany and the USA accessing our program to analyse images,’ observes Hamdi. ‘On the first day alone there were more than 1,200 hits.’

Hamdi’s initiative is one of several ideas for tackling coronavirus that are being developed by the digital centre in Tunisia in collaboration with partners. Within just two weeks, implementation of half a dozen pandemic control measures was initiated. GIZ has been helping to set up the centre since the end of 2019 on behalf of the German Development Ministry (BMZ). The extensive programme produces digital innovations for companies and public institutions.

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