Urban Technology at University of Michigan week 62
Micro tour of water + tech, data, and policy
When you hear the words “Michigan” and “water,” what comes to mind? Many readers will think of the water crisis in Flint that began in 2014. Others might remember the flooding that Detroit experienced this summer (as discussed in a previous issue of this newsletter). Or perhaps, on a more positive note, you’ve heard Tim Allen’s voice describing the abundant freshwater found in the Great Lake State.
What’s happening at the intersection of water and technology in Michigan? Let’s… dive in. (Sorry). Here’s a micro tour of just some of the tech, data, and policy dimensions related to water.
Hello! This is the newsletter of the Urban Technology program at University of Michigan, exploring the ways in which technology can be harnessed to nurture and improve urban life. If you’re new here, try this 90 second video introduction.
🚰 Measuring, Directing, Acting
Water systems, whether natural or man-made, are not immune to the many ways technology is changing how we inhabit cities, especially as we feel the increasing effects of climate change, with some cities experiencing historic flooding, others facing unprecedented droughts, and growing concerns about pollutants entering the water we drink. How can new technologies help address these challenges by benefitting residents and help policymakers make better decisions? Answers range in complexity from collecting rainwater using a simple barrel to scenario-planning tools that can help predict urban stream water quality.
Among the most impactful are tools that allow better monitoring and measuring of water usage and flows. The Great Lakes Water Authority serves Detroit and surrounding Wayne County, as well as parts of seven other counties—nearly 40% of Michigan’s population in total. That adds up to hundreds and hundreds of miles of pipes made of concrete as well as cast iron and steel, some of which are more than one hundred years old, especially within the city of Detroit.
That’s a lot of equipment to monitor for issues and fluctuations in pressure. Previously, static monitoring took pressure readings every 1 to 5 minutes for GLWA. Compare that with the Trimble Telog sensor (pictured below), an easy-to-install box that records a pressure reading 32 times every second and communicates the results to the cloud via a cellular connection.
GLWA has installed several dozen of these sensors throughout its system, generating a massive amount of data that has improved its ability to pinpoint and quickly respond to events such as a loss of power, water main break, or other surges in activity. Paired with a web-based interface, the data can easily be visualized and organized by location, to see, for example, if a particular pump station is having more issues than others. It also has long-term benefits, since engineers are better able to estimate how long different water mains can be expected to last before being replaced. If we know a concrete pipe generally is expected to last 65 to 100 years, that range can be calibrated based on the actual data from pressure readings and how many fluctuations that pipe has endured. In GLWA’s case, the updated range for a concrete pipe is actually between 30 and 100 years. Better data, better decision-making.
Beyond drinking water, cities also think a lot about waste and stormwater. Branko Kerkez, an associate professor of engineering here at U-M, has demonstrated the potential of sensors and valves to help cities better manage stormwater, transforming what is typically a static system—often designed to channel stormwater out of a city as quickly as possible—into a dynamic, adaptive one.
Kerkez has worked with the city of Ann Arbor and others in the Detroit Metro region to deploy Open Storm technologies, an array of open-source sensors and valves that monitor and control stormwater more efficiently. After storms, city officials can use valves to direct water into basins, where it can either be held or released to avoid excessive water flowing. In addition to reducing flooding, these systems improve water quality, since they help avoid runoff becoming polluted, and there are cost benefits, too—Ann Arbor has saved an estimated $1 million in infrastructure costs thanks to them.
💧 Advocacy, Visualization, Justice
In theory, here in 21st-century America, water is not a luxury but a right and an expectation. But water systems, like all other systems, are not uniform, and it’s a reality that water policies impact residents differently and inequalities exist here (like everywhere else). We the People of Detroit is a community-based organization that, in their words, “aims to inform, educate, and empower Detroit residents on imperative issues surrounding civil rights, land, water, education, and the democratic process.”
We the People have created a variety of maps and other data visualizations exploring the impact of water shutoffs on Detroit residents (which happen due to unpaid water bills), and how those shutoffs and other austerity measures correlate with race and socioeconomic factors. The headline? Areas in Southeast Michigan with whiter populations tend to be looser with water shutoffs compared to those with large black populations. In this example, combining policy analysis with mapping of population data is revealing. In this case, We the People are applying “better data, better decision-making” to improve the efficacy of their advocacy and make it impossible to ignore injustices built into the water system.
🌊 Retrofits, Infrastructure, Finance
There are so many people across the U-M campus who are working on water issues, including here at Taubman College. To learn more about how cities are attempting to better manage water supplies using technology, I chatted with Sara Hughes, an assistant professor at U-M’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) who has written about climate mitigation strategies deployed by cities, especially the mechanisms by which they try to achieve their climate goals.
What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation:
CHARLIE KEENAN: How did you become interested in your current research on policy, technology, and sustainability?
SARA HUGHES: I was actually a fisheries and wildlife student through my master’s, so I’ve always been interested in policy and the environment, but water was the connector, especially being in Michigan: water is related to wildlife, it’s related to people, it’s related to economies. I like to try and combine an understanding of cities, how they work, and how we can build what we want while interfacing with how the natural environment works.
KEENAN: Your research explores not only the political, economic, and social factors that influence cities’ climate mitigation policies, but also the technical factors. What’s your favorite example of data changing the way that cities think about sustainability?
HUGHES: One example is Toronto. We’ve known for a long time the multiple benefits of deep retrofits to buildings around energy and water efficiency—reduced energy bills, better air quality—but the costs for building owners can often feel prohibitive, and if the building is being rented out, there can be a disconnect between tenants and building owners.
Toronto was fortunate to have the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, a government think tank that came up with this really cool idea and did all the legwork for how to make the numbers and contracts work. Basically, they were able to guarantee payback and upfront capital, and show how retrofitting would benefit the building owners. Then, they teamed with the city’s social housing division to target buildings that otherwise might have been torn down, and where the repair budgets were not large. They did try to scale that program and have had some success.
So, we are just starting to explore possibilities. A lot of cities are doing this already, including better understanding water usage: where people use it in their house, at what time, etc. This has been happening with energy much longer, with smart metering, but there’s huge potential for saving low-income users money by identifying leaks. Especially in a city like Detroit where the cost of water can be pretty high, there is potential to use that information to save money.
KEENAN: That gets to my next question: it seems like a lot of the emerging technologies related to water and other utilities are being pitched at the municipal or regional level, but I was curious how individuals or households might also benefit from new approaches.
HUGHES: Those conversations have been at the city level because cities have been interested in helping people reduce water bills. I don’t think Detroit is entirely unique. If you have a lot of water shutoffs, the question becomes, “How can we get people’s bills to a level they can pay?” How can you experiment with this beyond bill credits? Are there more technologies that can be applied?
KEENAN: If you start thinking longer-term about how cities will sustainably manage their water supplies – say, in ten years – what are the problems that still need to be solved or technical solutions that are missing?
HUGHES: From my point of view, one of the big questions that feels like a puzzle to be solved is, how can drinking water systems be funded in a sustainable way? Right now, there is a real divide within cities between people who have reliable access to safe water and those who don’t. We are not used to thinking about this being an issue in the U.S., but as our systems age, as our population changes, and as the wealth divide grows, there’s more and more evidence that this issue exists between and among cities. At the same time, much of our infrastructure is nearing the end of its life naturally. At the time it was built, there were a lot of federal dollars that are now absent, so utilities are forced to raise rates, which doesn’t really help address that divide. So right now, there is a lot of effort to get money for infrastructure, but in general, this is a puzzle—we need new financing mechanisms that don’t overburden low-income communities.
KEENAN: For Michigan students interested in solving those problems, what kinds of skills will they need to succeed?
HUGHES: This might be cliché, but I’m a big fan of communication and writing skills, especially because I expect there will be more and more engaged, community-driven solutions, and in that context you need to be able to talk to people and communicate what you’re trying to do. I was in Toronto when Sidewalk Labs was trying to get underway, for example, so if you’re on the project team there, you need to help people see the bigger picture. On the tech side, probably some skills around visualization. I’m always impressed by what students with strong GIS skills can produce, because it’s also a way of communicating, just more visually.
KEENAN: We ask everyone this question: what’s your favorite city and why?
HUGHES: That is such a good question! I’m tempted to say a city in California, but I will say Flint, because that’s where my family is from. It’s full of great people and you never know what you’ll find when you’re there. I’m constantly impressed by what’s bouncing back from Flint.
For more, check out Professor Hughes’ book: Repowering Cities: Governing Climate Change Mitigation in New York City, Los Angeles, and Toronto. She has also created a set of tools for policymakers regarding racial justice in urban flood adaptation.
🏜 Opposite of water? Dust. Phylagen “turns dust into data.” Consider us interested! h/t Anthony Townsend
🎨 If Pipkin’s name sounds familiar, that’s because we linked to his critique of NFTs earlier in the year. From the other end of the telescope, here’s a walkthrough of the process of actually creating NFTs which may be an entry point for those who are still scratching their heads about the whole thing.
🗺 Temperature anomalies per year by country since 1916, presented in a simple and clever animated chart. What do you call this chart style? h/t William Felker
🧑🍳 The Friendly Cities Lab explores on “interpersonal relationships and social networks in geographic space,” including a map of the “chaininess” of restaurants (how likely a restaurant is to be part of a chain of 5 or more restaurants). Downtown Ann Arbor has a chaininess of ~300, while Detroit’s downtown is about triple that.
Recently, behind the scenes in the Urban Technology program: Bryan was on the jury for a ‘Future of Real Estate’ competition across campus. We’ve been preparing to launch a new project (more on that in the next newsletter). Schedule tetris. Administrative mountaineering. and a new (slightly updated and refreshed) website! 🏃