Data, People, and Water: the need for people-centered innovation in Detroit

“Orr on Wednesday said more needs to be done to differentiate the legitimate residential accounts from those connected to blighted and abandoned properties, or occupied by squatters or used as drug houses — conduct that the city doesn’t want to facilitate.” – Detroit News

Following the most comprehensive survey of Detroit property to date, Motor City Mapping, the above quote from Emergency Manager Orr should be a moot point. It would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties across the city. Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit’s new Chief Information Officer (CIO) Beth Niblock seem to be on board with opening up the city’s data as well as utilizing more technology to better provide services to residents.

Here is my short list of data that should have been utilized to better serve Detroit residents as opposed to penalizing them or resorting to scare tactics.

1. Motor City Mapping: In the most comprehensive citywide parcel survey ever conducted, a host of Detroit data focused organizations have compiled an incredible set of data and they have released it openly to the public. As Detroit works to revolutionize its technologies how did it miss the boat in utilizing this recent, widely publicized data survey. Again, it would take less than a few hours to check a list of delinquent water accounts against a list of “vacant” or “unoccupied” properties.

2. Census Bureau Data: Detroit residents are over 30% unemployed and 40% living below the poverty line. Many residents of Detroit are individuals who have been unable to leave, but have made it through Detroit’s toughest times. Detroit is a man-made disaster zone that has evolved slowly over the course of six decades. The city and the problems that residents face lay bare the inadequacies of our current systems to serve all residents. Neither the city government nor the emergency manager can rely on punitive actions to do any good for current or future Detroit residents.

3. District Managers and Community Networks: The DWSD contracted out door-to-door residential water shutoffs to a profit driven corporation. Any community organization in the city will tell you that mailing notices to residents is not enough. Many community organizations utilize a network of contacts and pay street teams to spread the word about community programs. Would it have really been that hard to do some basic canvassing to get people set up with assistance instead of just shutting off water completely? Why weren’t the new District Managers utilized?

Emergency Manager Orr and Mayor Duggan truly need to take a lesson from Detroit Mayors past who instead of making harmful decisions chose to serve the needs of residents first. Mayor Pingree utilized vacant land to feed the hungry and launched new programs for the poor during the 1893 economic depression. Mayor Murphy supported 400 acres of gardens and turned old factories into housing for the homeless during the Great Depression.

At this time of Detroit “revitalization,” when will Detroit’s decision-makers demonstrate that keeping people (both wealthy and poor) in the city will be better for Detroit’s future. Instead of these harmful actions, the Detroit government needs to push for greater people-centered innovation to serve all residents.

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