With news stories regularly appearing about increased lead levels or PFAS in drinking water systems, residents are more attuned to these risks.
In these times, water utilities are not only responsible for supplying clean, safe water, but also trustworthy information so that residents can feel properly informed. The need for utilities to do this is going to grow with new regulations and visibility.
For the last two years, +Impact Studio teams have identified these needs and worked with BlueConduit to develop solutions that better connect utilities with their customers.
Co-founded by Eric Schwartz, assistant professor of Marketing at the Ross School of Business, BlueConduit emerged out of research that Schwartz had started in Flint, Michigan in 2016. BlueConduit uses the power of machine learning to help utilities inventory and locate their lead service lines in municipalities across the United States and Canada. BlueConduit is currently partnering with more than 50 towns in doing this work.
The collaboration between +Impact Studio and BlueConduit has led to the development of a mapping platform that allows utilities to share information about pipe materials in ways that empower residents on how to reduce their risk of lead exposure, meeting the needs for public communication and compliance.
The newly adapted mapping platform comes at an ideal time for BlueConduit. At the end of 2020, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized extensive revisions to the primary regulations governing lead in drinking water. One of the biggest changes in the regulation is the requirement that all utilities create a publicly-accessible inventory of their service lines.
A mapping platform, like the one created in collaboration with the +Impact Studio students, will allow BlueConduit to help water utilities comply with the new EPA regulation in ways that can hopefully foster greater trust with residents.
Brought together by a desire to help in the midst of the Flint Water Crisis, Schwartz and his colleague Dr. Jake Abernethy of Georgia Tech (previously faculty at U-M College of Engineering) used their expertise in data science and machine learning to support the restoration work of Flint’s drinking water system. They developed a predictive algorithm that both accelerated the removal of lead pipes from Flint and saved the city millions of dollars.
By winter of 2019, it became clear that the challenges Flint faced were not unique. Other cities began reaching out to Schwartz and Abernethy; those requests were some of the impetus for BlueConduit.
That winter, a proto-version of the +Impact Studio course was launched to test how the model of scaling the real world impact of faculty research could be implemented at Ross. Through a semester-long engagement, a student team used design research methods to learn about and consider what Schwartz’s team could do to work with stakeholders to restore trust between residents and their water utility and how the lessons learned from Schwartz’s work in Flint could be applied in other cities.
The team identified increased information transparency, accountability, and giving residents agency as critical components for any solution that would meet the combined needs of water utilities and community stakeholders.
In Flint, one of the biggest opportunities for doing this was to communicate progress about the pipe replacement program to residents. Adhering to the insights from the Studio project, Schwartz collaborated with the Natural Resource Defense Council to create a public-facing map portal that would be able to communicate information about the pipe replacement program and steps that residents could take to reduce their lead exposure. By putting community voices first in the map-making project, the team created a map that empowered residents with actionable information.
When the map was released in the summer of 2020, it was the first time that the public had access to this information about the pipe replacement project. Residents can’t take action to protect themselves if they don’t know whether or not their homes are serviced by lead lines. The map connects Flint residents to this information.
In the winter of 2020, a team of +Impact Studio students used design research methods to develop a solution to issues around limited access to information about water quality and infrastructure. They developed a prototype called Water Wise, a customer-facing platform where residents could uncover information about the quality of water in their homes, learn about the health risks of contaminated water, compare options for addressing poor water quality, and connect with local government and community representatives who can help.
Though developed independently of BlueConduit, Water Wise focuses on the same key themes about access to actionable data that allow stakeholders to make proactive decisions to reduce risks around water quality and infrastructure that are at the core of BlueConduit’s business model. As part of the +Impact Studio summer (2020) fellow program, two members of the Water Wise team worked with BlueConduit on how aspects of the Water Wise platform could be integrated into BlueConduit’s business model.
Building on the importance of transparency, community engagement, and fostering trust with residents, the +Impact Studio Fellows worked on combining aspects of their platform with the back-end software of BlueConduit’s existing mapping technology, resulting in a user-friendly map platform that can communicate lead pipe risk for any geography. Combining the insights from their work in the +Impact Studio course, the summer fellows iterated on the design through community testing and surveys to create a mapping platform that BlueConduit can use at scale and in other geographies.
It is those same themes that were uncovered in the initial +Impact Studio project in the winter of 2019, and they are the same themes that guide BlueConduit as it meets new challenges and opportunities of helping communities inventory, locate, and replace their lead service lines.