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.