Tuesday, July 29, 2014

#DetroitWater - Part Two

A few days ago I posted about #DetroitWater. I had sent off an email to the creators before posting, and when I didn't hear back in a day I went ahead and posted the blog with the questions.
I think my emails got buried in the flood of attention they've been receiving. A little Twitter outreach, and the blog post itself, and they circled back to me ASAP with these answers to my earlier questions. To save you from having to click around - here's my old post again and my questions - this time with their answers.

 text of my PREVIOUS POST follows

Here's a website that allows anyone to pay the water bill (or part of the bill) owed by someone in Detroit. Lest we grow complacent, allow me to point out several noteworthy - dare I say, almost astonishing - things about this from the perspective of (what else) digital civil society:

  1. The city of Detroit is so broke it's cutting off water to residents.
  2. Many people in Detroit can't afford to pay for water. 
  3. People are taking to the street and online to protest - and the fight is on between privatized water systems and water as a common good (this is common fight in many parts of the world, and there is a strong "water is a human right" movement)
  4. Web technology built by a handful (two, I think) of people is up and running to help strangers help strangers.
  5. There are no intermediary organizations in this mix - donors pay bills directly to and through Detroit's public water department. The creators built the site, money goes to the water authority, donors and residents don't interact.
  6. PRIVACY is addressed as key issue on the site - both from the residents' and the donors' standpoints. And no grand promises are made.
I tried to get some more information about #DetroitWater but haven't heard back from the folks that I emailed. Here's what I asked them (My questions in bold, their answers follow)

My original Questions with their Answers

1. ​You mention in the privacy section that Detroit Water might identify residents. How likely is this, how would it happen, has it happened?

Tiffani and I have gone through the payment process several times and have not had names revealed. The information presented on the DWSD's site is not under our control. We collect names as a part of the submission process to get assistance and have each resident indicate whether we can give their names to the donor or not. As of yet we haven't released any names. and information collected and stored by us will not be released without the permission of the resident or the donor.

​2. ​What kind of permission did you need to get from Detroit Water Auth to use this info? How did you get the info?

We did not get permission from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. The website has several channels for entry and one of those is simply an account number.

Residents are providing us with their account numbers, phone numbers, address and amount owed, which is what we need to verify that they are actually in need of assistance. We then pass along the account number to the donor who makes a payment directly to the DWSD on the resident's behalf.

​3. ​Are residents opting in or opting out of this? Who is deciding and how are they deciding who's bills get paid?

​Residents are opting-in.

Tiffani, myself and a team of volunteers have been manually matching donors to accounts. As we iterate and demand grows, we are adding in rigor for determining who is prioritized for help. For example, we now have a check box for people who are over 65.  Other guidelines include, must have a past due balance, must be residential and not commercial, account must have activity in terms of use. At this point we have enough donors that we aren't having to deny one account over the other, just that it meets our standards for assistance. This is subject to change.

​4. ​ Where is transaction data being stored? How secure is it?

The transactions take place on the DWSD website. So the level of security is that as expected for a site that processes payments. We do not collect payments or payment information.

​5. ​Is CFA involved in this (one of the founders has a CFA email address)? Did you create this totally on your own? Others who helped? How long did it take?
This is not a Code for America project.

The idea and iterations of the site and our processes were created by Tiffani and I. It took us a weekend to get it up and running. We are constantly iterating as needed, and on the brink of having everything automated via algorithms written by Tiffani.

We've had help with operations from a team of volunteers who are listed on our site here: http://detroitwaterproject.org/#team

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