How to Save a City Through a Website

The Human Utility is paying Detroit's water bills.

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Before talking to Tiffani Bell, most of what I knew about the Detroit of the 21st century was blinkered by my location and class: It revolved around the city's bankruptcy, the Obama-approved auto bailout, and the occasional conversation with friends wondering whether moving there would be the most financially responsible decision that we could make. After all, Detroit is "the new Brooklyn," and, according to one headline, "a millennial paradise."

That's not the Detroit that Tiffani turned her focus to when she started the Detroit Water Project —now known as The Human Utility — in July 2014.

Tiffani found out that thousands of the city's residents were going to lose their access to one of the most basic human rights and necessities: water. While recent college grads were moving in and taking advantage of the city's comparatively low cost of living, thousands of the city's native residents were unable to pay their water utility bill. And if the city didn't get its money, it was simply going to turn the water off.

As a passionate student of computer science and former Code for America fellow in Atlanta, working with the city's traffic courts, Tiffani knew what local government bureaucracy could look like and how slowly the cogs of resolution could turn. After finding out about the impending human-rights crisis, she decided to take direct action and cut out the government middleman.

The Human Utility is similar to other social-economy startups like Kickstarter and Patreon, but different in that it focuses on one singular goal: letting people around the world pay water bills for the citizens of Detroit (and now Baltimore). It's also a nonprofit tech startup run by a black woman. So, as we talked on the phone for over an hour, I asked her how her identity has colored her experiences in STEM.

What followed was a conversation that opened my eyes to a municipal water crisis in Detroit — one very different from the crisis in Flint — and the consequences for the city's population.

Kendra James: Let's start before the Water Project. How did you become passionate about computer science?

Tiffani Bell: I started programming when I was six, but I really wanted to be a cartoonist, so computer science wasn't my career choice. It was pure accident. My mom bought me this thing called a PreComputer 1000 back when I was in the first grade, and I got tired of playing the built-in games. I always played Hangman, and I started getting the same words over and over again. So I was flipping through the user manual for the computer one — I'm not sure what six-year-old reads user manuals, but I did. It had a tutorial in the background about reprogramming the computer.

I was able to read everything in the tutorial, start making my own stuff, and go in from there. My parents were both in the military, and at that time we were stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. My mom just happened to get the computer for me, but I didn't have anybody in my family who was into computers, so I had no concept of what I was doing or that that could be a career choice.

Somewhere between like fourth and sixth grade, I found all these computer books at the library. At the library I learned stuff like HTML, JavaScript, and C++ and just read about computer stuff. I learned how to put together a web page, and my goal was to build a web page to show off some of the comics that I was drawing.

My dad was still in the Army, and Fort Knox had an online correspondence programming class. So I signed up for it and I ended up getting the highest grade in the class. At the same time, I had turned fifteen, and I had an uncle who did a bunch of signals and communications work for the Army, and he had computers he had brought home just lying around his house. While my brothers and my cousins were out playing, I'd be in the house on the computer doing stuff.

KJ: Ghostbusters came out this weekend, featuring three women scientists, all white, and one non-scientist who is black. There been a lot of talk lately about how there is little representation of women in STEM, and specifically black women in STEM in pop culture. Did you find that to be difficult when you were younger?

TB: I saw that trailer and I was just like, "Why does the black woman have to be the one that doesn't know science?"

I didn't have any role models as far as people that looked like me that did coding work specifically. I didn't have a black female computer-science professor until my sophomore or junior year of college, even though I went to an HBCU.

When I got an internship at Hewlett-Packard there was a black woman there who used to be a developer before becoming a manager. She was the first black woman that I met in the industry, basically. I've only had two significant experiences with black women in the industry.

KJ: In your entire career, even up until now?

TB: If you don't count folks that are my age. Some people need to see role models that look like them, but luckily I didn't. I was just like, "Oh, that's Bill Gates, I can do computer stuff too," and followed his lead. But it never dawned on me that he didn't look like me until later in life.

KJ: What inspired you to create the Detroit Water Project?

TB: I saw an article in the Atlantic about how 100,000 people in Detroit were going to get their water shut off. I was actually supposed to go to the office that day at Code for America, but I ended up just working from home, so I spent the rest of the day reading about what people were doing. Some of them couldn't flush the toilet, so they started to use the bathroom in their backyard; people were catching water in rain bins and going to neighbors' houses to bathe, all because they couldn't afford the bill.

That's pretty shitty, considering 85 percent of the water companies in the United States are city-run municipal water companies. This is a city turning their customers off for nonpayment. I think the stat is like 25 percent of the folks in Detroit are unemployed. When you consider numbers like that you can't be like, "We're going to shut all these people off and hope they come up with the money some kind of way." You obviously have a huge problem on your hands.

At that time, 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewer customers were behind enough on their bills to be eligible for shutoff. That's a combination of commercial and residential customers, but the bulk of that was just residential. There are cities that are pretty much enabling their own citizens to be preyed upon like this. There's all these things that stem from not paying their water bills. You can actually lose your kids.

KJ: Lose your kids?

TB: Yeah. You're going to lose your kids over not having water in your house, because they think of your house as being unfit for habitation. We have to be careful about sharing information about the people coming to us for help with payments, because we don't want to put them in a situation where through ex-partners or someone else, they can say they don't have water in their house and all their kids are taken.

KJ: When you decided that you were going to start assisting with water bills, how did that work?

TB: I asked the question "Does anybody know somebody that is in this situation in Detroit, and what are they doing?" Nobody was really able to respond with what they were doing. My co-founder, Kristy Tillman, replied on Twitter and said, "I'd pay a bill for somebody if we are able to pay the bill directly for them." So I went and found a public 400-page PDF on the water utility's website that was a list of bills they supposedly couldn't collect.

KJ: Posted publicly?

TB: Right? It was just crazy. They published this huge list and it had addresses in it, and how much they owed; the only thing that wasn't there was names. So they had account numbers, addresses, etcetera. I took one of these account numbers from that PDF, and I just plugged it into the utility company's website to see if it would pop up. It turned out pretty much everything was there: a person's payment history, in some cases their name, what their billing history was, whether they were delinquent or not, whether they were about to get shut off or not.

There was a make-a-payment button, and I thought, What if we collected the PDF full of account numbers? What if we built a website to find people who were having problems paying their bills and we get their account numbers and we say we'll log into their account and just pay some bills for them? That's pretty much how we've paid the bulk of the first early bills.

I think we launched on a Thursday, and we had the first person to actually pay a bill on the following Monday. In the meantime, people were flamboyantly giving money. The original site was set to have a list of people who needed help paying bills on the front page, but we didn't have enough people coming forward publicly for help. So we ended up really quickly repurposing the site so that donators could provide their email addresses and how much money they wanted to pledge. Then we'd email them a person's account number and direct them on how to pay it and everything. It was imbalanced at that point; more people wanted to pledge than actually had signed up for support, so we had to do something.

KJ: What was the outreach to the people of Detroit? How did you let them know that you guys existed? It's hard to keep up with Twitter when you're working your third job because you can't pay your water bill.

TB: Exactly. Some [detractors] were like, "They need to go to work, they're just sitting around waiting for a hand out." And I'm like, "These people probably work harder than you do."

The United Way in Southeastern Michigan reached out to see if they could list us as a resource as a place to get bills paid. We also had a bunch of postcards printed out to be distributed in the community.

KJ: What's the average amount of money that people are donating?

TB: Right now, it's about $55 to $75.

KJ: What's the average unpaid water bill?

TB: It's usually a combination of a bunch of months so it's at least like $500 to $600 that people owe. I actually get excited about seeing all the water bills now — it's easier to compare numbers and data now. But it actually pisses me off a little bit, because who was the one person at the utility that let these bills get to this point? I mean, I have the odd person on the site where the bill is like $12,000 because it's from their elderly parents' house that had a leak or something, or they just let the bills pile up because they were just older and both of them had died and the son inherited the house and couldn't pay the bill himself either because he was low-income.

But I ask all the time, "Who in the water company let this pile up?" Did anyone go to check on these customers? I'm sure there were notices that were sent, but at what point should someone have gotten in the car and driven over to ask, "What's going on with this customer?"

KJ: You've extended the project since, into Baltimore, and you're getting requests for assistance from other states. Are there plans to expand?

TB: Yeah. Philadelphia is interested in working with us, but we need more funding. I've been using volunteers here and there, but we need reliable, committed folks doing this stuff full-time. I'm based in the Bay Area, and this is my full-time job.

KJ: You're managing to run a startup nonprofit working out of the most expensive area in the country.

TB: It's been a challenge, because I have a housemate here and it would be great to live alone, but I can't really afford it. I pay myself minimum wage, and that's so I can pay my water bill.

KJ: You're really doing this all yourself, remotely, with one paid assistant. When you start to discuss diversity in any field you'll often hear: "Create your own diverse companies," or "You have to tell your own stories," or "You have to write your own things." That's what you did. You run this project as a black woman in STEM. What do you think about diversifying Silicon Valley as a whole? Is it going to be more of a "create-your-own process," or does it need to be a top-down directive from existing companies?

TB: As a founder, my interest is mostly in creating my own thing. There's this other side where in order just to build something like Facebook or Dropbox or Airbnb, you need venture capitalism. Who gets venture-capital funding? It's mostly young white guys. It's a catch-22 in that you can go and found your own company, but you have this problem of "Will I get funding to grow to levels where I can begin hiring people and building a more diverse company?"

The other angle is if I or another POC wants to be an engineer, will I have to worry about "culture fit" at different tech companies? I figure that's a term that's used to just keep people out at this point. "Oh, you're not a culture fit," where the culture-fit definition is "bearded white guy that wears flannel shirts," is a problem.

This is an entire ecosystem thing. The lowly person that works at one of these tech companies that gets hired, and then there are the founders of that company, and then there are the venture capitalists that fund that company, and after the venture capitalists there are limited partners that give the venture capitalists money to invest. There needs to be diversity at all those levels.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kendra James is a writer and blogger based in New York City.

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