The co-founder of the Detroit Water Project on creating a non-profit from scratch, coping with government bureaucracy, and how hearing a family’s toilet flush can make it all worthwhile.
The Macro : The Detroit Water Project has helped more than 950 families keep access to running water since it was founded just 16 months ago. Can you take us back to the beginning? How did this start?
Tiffani Ashley Bell : Last summer in 2014, I was a Code for America fellow, working on software with the City of Atlanta. With government stuff, when you’re working on projects at that level, there is often a lot of downtime as you wait for things to go through.
Before I get up in the morning, I usually scroll through Twitter on my phone. One morning in July of last year I read an article in the Atlantic about how there were 100,000 people in Detroit who were about to have their water shut off for owing money to the water company. The article said that something like 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s customers were behind on their bills. If you were $150 behind for at least 2 months, you were eligible for shut off.
This story really bothered me. It just really bothered me. This was a city-run water company having this issue. I thought it was shady that this was the city’s solution. How is turning off a household’s access to clean water helping people who are already hurting, who are already behind on their bills?
I ended up not even going into the office that day. I just stayed in the house, in my pajamas, reading more and more about what was going on, taking phone calls, trying to figure out how this was happening and how to help. I talked a lot about the situation on Twitter, posting my thoughts and findings, and reading other people’s reactions and ideas. Kristy Tillman, who became my co-founder, said, “I would pay someone else’s bill if I could pay it directly to the water company.”
Meanwhile, I had been clicking all around on the water company’s website, and I found a 400-page PDF document that was a list of account numbers of people who owed money that the water company supposedly couldn’t deliver bills to by mail. We took one of the account numbers and plugged it into the utility company’s website, and it showed a lot of information: How much was owed, consumption history, payment history. And there was a payment button.
So we put together a quick site on Heroku that night. In the beginning it was really just an ugly site with a link to a Google Form that basically said, ‘If you need help, sign up here.’ We wanted to connect with the people behind that big list of accounts, with the hopes of eventually being a platform for telling their stories. Then we just started Tweeting that out.
So this whole thing was taking shape in real-time in public, all on Twitter?
Yes. My cofounder Kristy and I hadn’t even met in person yet at that point! But we had been Twitter contacts for a long time.
I’m just now getting to the point that I’ve met most of the people I’ve talked to on Twitter in person — whether at a conference, or travel, or just through work in San Francisco. But there are all these people I’ve talked to and shared thoughts with for years.
What was the response like?
It was a Thursday that we launched the site, and the response from the press and from donors was just immediate and incredible. We actually ended up then spending the whole weekend trying to find a person in Detroit to help! At the beginning, we had a bunch more people signed up to pledge than we had signed up to receive the money.
How did you end up connecting to the people who needed help?
Originally we just did social media promotion, but we quickly saw that was not useful for the folks who needed the help. So we printed out postcards and mailed them to different places in Detroit. The Postal Service has a widget on its website that lets you pick a mail route and see how many houses are on it and how much it would cost to send a postcard to that route. We just picked the most prevalent zip code that we found in that big PDF of accounts.
It took off from there by word of mouth. We helped a few people, and they’d tell a bunch of people. I think if you have something that really works and is honest, word of mouth is the best marketing you can get.
How did this go from being a project, to being a full-time endeavor for you?
Soon after we launched, my work at the fellowship in Atlanta also picked up, and before I knew it I was juggling 2 full time jobs!
I just thought, “I have to figure out a way to keep this going, because people keep applying for help with their bills.” For me it was clearly just an obvious thing that needs to exist, so I knew I needed to do my best to keep it going.
So we applied to YC to take part as a non-profit. It worked out: The Code for America fellowship ended the same weekend we got accepted to Y Combinator.
How has your understanding of the water crisis in Detroit changed since you first read about the issue?
Being a Code for America fellow, I was able to basically get access to whoever I wanted in the government in Atlanta. You quickly see that even if the government is not perfect, the people in City Hall are not terrible people. They come to work for the most part because they want to help people. So based on what I knew from Atlanta, I knew that it couldn’t be that there were just terrible people running the water company in Detroit.
It turns out this whole water crisis thing goes back a while. In the City of Detroit, generally, the water company is the one thing that still brings in money every month — there are a lot of people who still pay consistently. But the city has taken out billions in bonds, so they owe Wall Street a lot of money. They see the water company as the only place to try and get that money back.
Once you’re behind on your bill for two months and the water has been turned off, there’s a $30 reconnection fee to turn it back on. If you were already behind on your bill though, there’s a chance you can’t afford that. So there are people who will come around with a crowbar and a pickup truck to turn it back on illegally. But if the water company finds out you did that, they charge a $250 fine. You can see how these things just add up.
Has there been any criticism?
I remember at first we’d have some people calling this a “Band-Aid solution.” Now, I understand where that comes from. And in a way, I agree with them! Our intention has never been to just pay people’s bills indefinitely. That’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t encourage utility companies to look at their pricing and policies.
But I never saw this as a Band-Aid solution. It was just the most simple and elegant thing to do at that time.
Water is an essential thing that we all need. I don’t have this fantasy that everything should just be free. I understand that utilities cost money to run. But I think the policies could be better. I think there is a better way to work with people. If someone can’t afford a $150 bill, shutting off their water isn’t going to change that, and it is very likely to make the problem worse. If you are a week before Thanksgiving and your family does not have running water, if you are looking for a job and going on an interview but you can’t take a shower, you don’t need to hear that changing that would be a Band-Aid.
Our approach was to do what needs to be done to get people’s water turned back on, while also looking further into what causes people to need this help in the first place. We’re stopping the bleeding while also helping treat the underlying wound.
How has the organization itself evolved over the past year?
A lot of how this has evolved has been in the lean startup model. Our core issue is about water affordability and access. Right now, that’s manifested with this large group of people who can’t pay their water bills. So we started with the smallest possible thing we could do to begin to chip away at the problem: Paying those bills to get the water turned back on.
I went to college in D.C., and though I majored in computer science, I’m also a closet policy wonk. When I saw this problem, I knew we couldn’t change the laws overnight. There were already people protesting the situation, so we weren’t going to go that route. We did the quickest thing we could do to alleviate the problem.
Now we’re maturing as an organization, and the second phase of building our platform will be working toward addressing root causes. In our data and collecting these stories, we’ve seen that there are a few common threads behind people who are getting their water shut off: People who have lost a job, people with a medical issue that’s sent a financial shock through the family, people who have paid money to someone like a landlord who is not using it to pay the water bill, senior citizens who have not applied for all of the programs they are eligible for.
We’re also adding internal improvements like tracking funds, adding administrative layers, improving customer service, shortening response times to people. But we couldn’t have gotten here at all if we hadn’t started the way that we did.
It sounds like these kinds of issues can’t be unique to Detroit.
Exactly. This is just one city. We’ve also launched the program in Baltimore, and we’re starting to work with other cities too — we’re hoping to launch Philadelphia in the spring, for instance.
With each new city, we’re learning about different policies, different criteria for shutoff and fines. There is a lot of policy design that we’re implementing through software.
How have the cities and the water companies responded? I’d imagine it’d have to be quite positive?
In the beginning, not so much actually. Like I said, at the start, we had a lopsided situation where we had a lot more donors than people we could connect to help. We were frantically trying to reach out to the city to tell them, “We have a ton of money here, if you can just help us connect with the people to give it to, you’ll be doing a great thing.”
I made some calls, and eventually got through to the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. She essentially just blew me off. She was pretty condescending, honestly. So we just went through YC, and kept doing it on our own.
We’d been able to scrape all this data from the water company’s website, but there is a ton of other data that we often needed too. If I had a question about a certain account and whether it had been shut off yet or not, I’d have to sit on the customer support line for 30 or 40 minutes, like everyone else. There was one time when I went in person to the utility company in Detroit to pay bills. When I finally got to the front of the line I said, “I run this non-profit, and I have about 50 accounts that I’d like to get information for.” The woman at the desk just said, “That’s a new request, so you’ll have to go to the back of the line for that.”
I got to a point this past summer after a year where I started to get really fed up with the things we had to do to help people. I was like, “Hell, we’re sending all this money to you probably would have never gotten anyway. There’s got to be something you can do to help facilitate.”
Finally, through Jen Pahlka at Code for America, I was put in touch with the CIO for the City of Detroit. I told her the situation, and she put me directly in touch with the COO of the water company. I was able to explain to them who we are and what we’re doing. We’ve been working directly with them for 3 weeks ago, and it’s been a totally different experience. So we’re getting there, but it’s taken a while.
The ideal situation would be for us to have our own portal with the information we need, in every city that we’re in. We’re working toward that now.
Encountering bureaucracy like that for so long, a lot of people would probably have gotten frustrated and just given up. Do you think you’re especially tenacious?
Well, that’s not quite true. I will quit on some things in a second! [laughs] But not stuff that I care about. I turned 30 this past summer, and I’ve realized that even more as I get older. For things I care about, I really can’t let them go.
I was in Detroit over the past year, and I visited this lady’s house, one of the people we had helped with the bills. She had five kids she was raising on her own — two of them were her own, and three she had adopted from her best friend who had died, which had put a strain on her finances. Her water had been shut off, and she had periods also of having no electricity. I was standing there talking to her about how much the project had helped her, and I heard one of the kids flushing the toilet in the background. That sound is something you and I might take for granted, but for that family, it was an important thing. All this work we’re doing has a tangible, real impact.
So no, I don’t think of myself as having a special amount of tenacity. The folks this product is for that aren’t the usual affluent 20-somethings living in San Francisco. We cater to someone who is totally different. These are regular, hard-working folks who are going through tough situations: Grandmas, aunts, uncles.
I think about all the other jobs or things I could have been doing as an engineer, and I can’t imagine anything else that I’d want to do more.