How an Algorithm Could Help Flint’s Water Crisis

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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan has been making headlines for years now. But many people don’t know exactly this crisis initially occurred or exactly what’s happening within the city now. As new developments have recently come to light — and many are interested in how to use technology for good to prevent future crises — a review of the facts may be in order.

Legal Fallout From Flint’s Water Crisis

Already in the early days of 2021, nine former Michigan state officials have been arrested and charged in connection with a criminal investigation focusing on the water crisis. What’s more, they may not be the only ones who will need criminal defense lawyers due to their connections to the crisis. These officials actually included Michigan’s former governor, speaking to the seriousness of the issue and how significantly it affected the entire state’s government. These officials were indicted on 42 different counts of criminal offenses related to the Flint water crisis, according to Michigan’s Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worth. And while most of these individuals might not need bail services, as they have the financial ability to secure their release until trial, many local residents are hoping that accountability will be imminent.

Understanding the Flint Water Crisis

Essentially, the Flint water crisis was a public health crisis in which the drinking water for the city of Flint was contaminated with both lead and legionella bacteria. Both of these contaminants can cause and did cause serious health issues for a wide variety of people. The consumption of lead can cause intellectual disabilities, fetal abnormalities, and delayed physical and intellectual growth for young children. Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by exposure to legionella bacteria, can cause fever and respiratory illnesses, as well as potentially deadly pneumonia.

Not only did public officials become aware of this issue and neglect their duties to remedy them, but they also made decisions that actively made the water crisis worse. Although Flint now has clean water, the crisis lasted from 2014 to 2019, despite the fact that public officials were aware of the issues present.

The reasons why this contamination occurred in the first place are also deeply concerning. In 2014, the city of Flint switched its main water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint river. Over time, water pipes became corroded due to the fact that lead and other contaminants were being leached into municipal drinking water. This in itself is a serious problem and could not be aided through simple plumbing repairs. But over time, Legionnaires’ disease also become a part of the problem, as the crisis prompted an outbreak to occur within the city.

Despite the water supply being switched back in 2015, the ill effects continued for the long term. It wasn’t until early 2016 that Michigan declared a state of emergency for Flint, but Flint residents were officially warned not to drink municipal tap water (unless it was properly filtered) much later that year. During that time, thousands of people were exposed to unhealthy drinking water and a massive example was made for not only the state of Michigan, but the United States at large.

Currently, prosecutors are focusing in part on the Legionnaires’ disease issue. This greatly informed the charges that were brought up against the nine government officials charged and indicted. Currently, prosecutors are working with experts to study the issue of Legionnaires’ disease and how it was connected to deaths in Flint. In 2014 and 2015, the Flint area saw 91 cases of Legionnaires’ disease and 12 deaths connected to the disease. According to a 2017 study by Virginia Tech professors and students, these deaths could indeed have been caused by individuals drinking contaminated drinking water, as the drinking water itself was identified as possible trigger for the rise in Legionnaires’ disease in the area.

Whether or not the individuals charged in connection the Flint water crisis receive jail time does not change the fact that people became sick and died due to the contaminated water in the area. This is one reason why many in the tech industry are currently considering how to use technology for good. Specifically, innovators are looking at how to use technology for good to ensure that water being provided to the public is clean. Public drinking water, in particular, is relied upon by millions upon millions of Americans. They can’t live without drinking water, so that drinking water needs to be as clean as possible. While the individual public officials charged in connection to the Flint water crisis dramatically neglected their duties, some would argue that the charges brought against them may not enough to prevent these types of crises from occurring again in the future. Rather, strong progressive action need to be actively taken in order to ensure that people in cities like Flint remain as safe as possible.

Fortunately, researchers are now considering how to use technology for good in the context of water-related crises. There is actually an algorithm that recently showed promise in terms of helping a Toledo community detect lead pipes. As lead pipes were among the main issues that caused problems in Flint, the ability to detect lead pipes — allowing for their potential excavation and replacement — could be vital. The use of technology could ensure that drinking water is kept as pure as possible for residents in cities like Flint and Toledo.

The Algorithm That Could Prevent Crises Like Flint’s

Flint is still suffering the consequences of its water criss, and not just in terms of how people’s health statuses were directly affected. Although millions of dollars have been spent on water restoration services in the area, many people in Flint still report suffering from PTSD. Of course, many are still mourning the losses of loved ones, as well. This is why it’s important to explore how to use technology for good in order to avoid this type of issue from occurring again. There are options that are being developed now that far outpace the types of technology that were used in Flint at the time of its crisis and could be key in preventing this type of crisis from occurring again in the future.

BlueConduit is an analytics startup that initially tried to explore how to use technology for good in Flint, specifically. The company uses predictive modeling to find lead pipes and claimed that promising potential results in Flint. However, city politicking prevented the company from fulfilling its full purpose there. BlueConduit is a part of an effort to use artificial intelligence to prevent lead poisoning issues in cities like Flint. Artificial intelligence is being increasingly explored throughout the world, with roughly 61% of people in a recent survey saying that they believed AI would make the world a better place. Certainly, the types of predictive modeling and AI algorithms utilized by companies like BlueConduit could ensure that Americans are able to reduce their risk to contaminated water in the future.

More recently, officials in Toledo, Ohio have identified a need to explore how to use technology for good because of their own potential issues with lead pipes. Ideally, officials in Toledo want to not only use AI algorithms to prevent a public health crisis but to additionally use community outreach to educate Toledo residents about the risks that could be hiding within their drinking water. According to the Ohio Department of Health, up to 19,000 children in the state have elevated lead levels. However, children in Toledo specifically tested positive for lead poisoning at nearly double the statewide rate, according to a 2016 report from the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition.

The AI algorithms used by BlueConduit may not be the sole solution to this issue, but they could provide a great deal of insight and make a huge impact in resolving this crisis. Jacob Abernathy and Eric Schwartz founded BlueConduit in 2019, exploring how to use technology for good. It was actually originally a project at the University of Michigan, meant to explore how to identify lead pipes in Flint specifically. Since then, the startup has grown significantly and currently has contracts in 50 different cities in order to help replace lead pipes within their water systems.

How the Algorithm Works

In order to understand how to use technology for good, one must first have an understanding of how the technology itself works. Statistical techniques are highly key to the approach used by BlueConduit. These statistical techniques are used to predict which households and neighborhoods are more like to have lead piping. There are many different factors that key into these predictions. These factors include the age of the homes in question, the neighborhoods themselves, and the proximity of the homes to locations in which lead could be found, as well as utility records. Based on the likelihood of a lead service line, BlueConduit will then offer a ranking to those in charge of the area. Cities can then use the ranking system to prioritize which homes will need to be excavated and explored first.

There are a lot of reasons why cities cannot simply work with plumbing contractors to have piping systems explored freely. Unfortunately, most them do not have the budgets, time, or manpower available to have every home’s piping systems explored. One of the main reasons why individuals are calling for an exploration in terms of how to use technology for good is that technology can make it easier for thin budgets to be stretched further, and money to be saved. If it’s impossible for every home to be properly excavated, then high priority homes should be excavated first. Of course, for some homeowners this is also somewhat of a relief, as excavations are not necessarily pleasant and are often time consuming.

Toledo is actually able to rely on the community to aid in this push for exploring how to use technology for good. The city is going to need information from homeowners and residents in order to help BlueConduit provide the most accurate results possible. Essentially, the people of Toledo will be providing information individually. Everyone from family doctors that have seen the effects of lead poisoning to the area, to long term Toledo residents with high awareness of the health issues in their homes, will be able to contribute.

The example of the Flint water crisis underlines how important it is is that city residents are a part of the efforts to explore how to use technology for good in terms of providing clean drinking water. As previously mentioned, BlueConduit was able to offer promising results to the people of Flint in 2017 and it was believed that the startup could potentially greatly aid the city. A total of 70% of the homes identified through the AI algorithm-based model were found to have lead pipes, suggesting a good degree of accuracy from the startup. When the city declined to use BlueConduit’s technology the next year and instead signed a contract with an engineering firm based in Los Angeles, the accuracy plummeted down to 15%.

An issue in Flint was that people were not properly educated about the BlueConduit model, which bred distrust. Some individuals in Flint were concerned and put off by the fact that the model might be used to inspect a neighbor’s house and not their own. People felt as if they were being looked over, and although it is important to consider how to use technology for good, it’s also important for people in the area to understand what is happening in their cities. AI algorithms like these cannot work without the participation of city residents.

Additionally, people in Flint, as argued by BlueConduit, just didn’t trust their government. Until the water crisis became truly severe, the Flint government did not appear to be interested in exploring how to use technology for good. This delayed the ability to lay down repipes in Flint, as well as prevent future water crises.

There are a lot of issues at hand regarding what occurred, and what is still occurring, in Flint. But if technology can help prevent it from happening again, it is understandable that many would want that technology to be explored and researched.

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