Photo of Andrés Rico

Artificial intelligence & robotics

Andrés Rico

Low-cost sensors map water quality in informal settlements to improve water consumption.

Year Honored

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA)

Latin America

Hails From

Access to drinking water is very limited in Mexico's poorest neighborhoods and cities: between 12.5 and 15 million inhabitants of the North American country do not have access to it. Almost 30% of Mexicans who do have access to drinking water do not receive it in sufficient quantity or quality, despite the fact that it is a human right. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), an investment equivalent to 1.3% of the region's gross domestic product (GDP) would be needed over ten years to achieve universal coverage of safe water and sanitation throughout Latin America.

Aware of this problem and in the absence of reliable data on water use in informal settlements, Mexican robotics engineer Andrés Rico (28 years old) decided to devote his doctoral thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to tackling the water crisis. This young man has developed a low-cost, open-source sensor network that measures parameters such as water quality, quantity, and use. With the help of artificial intelligence (AI), this data is analyzed to extract useful information and achieve more effective water management for disadvantaged families.

Rico explains that his solution makes it possible, for example, to know the quality of the different water sources and thus use the poorer quality water to clean the floor instead of for cooking, reserving the higher quality water for sanitary uses. The development of this product, he adds, is the result of "a process of co-creation with the communities to avoid a top-down approach." For his development of a cost-effective solution to help households in Mexico's informal settlements better manage their scarce water resources, Rico has been named by MIT Technology Review in Spanish as one of the Innovators Under 35 Latin America 2023.

The system generates data that will also help researchers and authorities make better decisions about water infrastructure. "Currently, it is analyzed through censuses and surveys that take a long time and do not include as much detail as that provided by sensors," explains Rico. Thanks to this real-time updated information, access to water in the most vulnerable communities can be improved.

After a pilot test in Guadalajara, Mexico, the young engineer wants to scale the water sensor network to more homes and cities. In addition, he aspires to further democratize this technology by publishing the code in scientific articles, which will allow the communities themselves to install the water measurement system and improve access and consumption of this essential liquid in marginal areas and obtain useful data for their inhabitants.