Thursday, July 24, 2014

#DetroitWater - a sign of things to come?

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:
  • You mention in the privacy section that Detroit Water might identify residents. How likely is this, how would it happen, has it happened?
  • What kind of permission did you need to get from Detroit Water Auth to use this info? How did you get the info?
  • Are residents opting in or opting out of this? Who is deciding and how are they deciding who's bills get paid?
  • Where is transaction data being stored? How secure is it?
  • 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?

1 comment:

Rick Cohen said...

Lucy: Truly important and incisive observations, congratulations. Of course, one dimension of this is the absolute breakdown of the basics of governance in Detroit. The actions of Detroit Water and Sewerage throughout this crisis have been a case study. But in addition, your observations point out something sadly quite fundamental. It's not just the questions you raise about our digital society. It is the rather obvious callousness of Detroit Water (the department, not the site) toward the people the department is supposed to serve. They're ciphers, they're customer accounts, not people, and therefore somehow a platform launched by two apparently well-meaning young people can get access to the dehumanized, depersonalized information about Detroit Water's customers who are behind on their bills. The attitude toward people in Detroit--held by some agencies that are meant to serve them--is shocking and reprehensible--and reflected in the powerful questions you've raised. Please share the answers you get!