The Human Utility
August 5, 2016 11:48 AM   Subscribe

How to Save a City Through a Website There was a make-a-payment button, and I thought, What if we collected the PDF full of account numbers? What if we built a website to find people who were having problems paying their bills and we get their account numbers and we say we'll log into their account and just pay some bills for them? That's pretty much how we've paid the bulk of the first early bills.
posted by Michele in California (18 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
So many feelings all at once over this. I'm uplifted by the success of connecting donors directly to the issue, rather than through several layers of nonprofit and original institution. Similarly the fact that this is all made by one person, who is black and female and who forged this path largely by herself, is rad. But WTF is the Detroit water authority doing not monitoring water usage trends to detect leaks? And Bell pays herself minimum wage on this project and still runs into culture fit problems, even though she works remotely?
posted by a halcyon day at 12:35 PM on August 5, 2016 [12 favorites]

While I don't love the premise that lead to this solution I absolutely love the solution. This is brilliant and compassionate problem solving for the 21st century. I am in awe of Tiffani Bell.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:27 PM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Love this. Sees a problem, finds a solution. Doesn't just talk about it while in line to buy over-priced coffee somewhere. I hope she finds her VC.
posted by vignettist at 4:04 PM on August 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I really love this idea. All people need is a little hand up sometimes. At the same time, my eyes popped to read that a list of debtors, even if names were unattached, was available for download. Surely that is a privacy breach of some kind on the part of the utility?
posted by Calzephyr at 4:30 PM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

After finding out about the impending human-rights crisis, she decided to take direct action and cut out the government middleman.

Except that isn't she just paying the middleman directly? This localised solution just fails to take account for the wider problems and do anything to address the actual causes of the symptoms. Instead it just treats the symptom. Like many such local minded charity run programs.

They do nothing for the systemic problems because they fail to engage at a political level.
posted by mary8nne at 5:39 PM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bell even discusses the systemic issues, and yet persists in a project that does absolutely nothing to address them. The problem is that this kind of project means that the water supply systems can just carry on as usual without changing at all. Bell is helping the very people she is complaining about.

How is that going to fix things?
posted by mary8nne at 5:46 PM on August 5, 2016

And if she redirected her efforts to systemic solutions instead, the people who are receiving immediate help go without water. People need to work toward systemic solutions, but there's nothing wrong with easing suffering under the current system.
posted by Mavri at 6:15 PM on August 5, 2016 [22 favorites]

How is that going to fix things?

My read of TFA is that the ultimate problem is people losing their children, for example, because their house has no water. Bell's system efficiently restores water service to keep homes together, prevents the spread of disease from people pooping outdoors and using rainwater to clean and drink, et c.

You're correct that it doesn't address the systemic issue, but it's not a nobler goal to attack only the process and consciously ignore the symptoms in this case.
posted by a halcyon day at 6:46 PM on August 5, 2016 [20 favorites]

Whilst I absolutely understand and agree with that first part the armchair-helicopterview-philanthropists posit (this is symptomatic relief, not systemic change) I am always stunned how they can say it as a criticism.

I could understand a 'hey, cool, now what exactly is the underlying issue, how do we solve it and how can I help do that?'.

But I cannot understand anyone who would say what amounts to: "look, screw the under-nourishment and the near-death starvation: the real problem is lack of knowledgable farmers. You really shouldn't feed these people untill you solve that issue first!".

And then they almost always say it from the sidelines whilst doing absolutely nothing except think they're oh-so-smart for being able to distinguish symptom and root cause.

If you are smart enough to actually really have seen the root cause, then solve it. Failing that at least specify exactly how to solve it. Failing that, help aleviate symptoms whilst the root cause is being found or solved.

Do something.

At the very least, cheer those on who are.
posted by MacD at 8:46 PM on August 5, 2016 [14 favorites]

Cue parable about little boy throwing starfish back into the ocean. "It matters to that one."

I mean, it's like treating a disease like cancer. Sure you look for a cure, but you also give individuals chemo, radiation and surgery to treat *their* cancer. You don't just say "What good is chemo when there isn't a cure for cancer yet?" Well, if it keeps someone from dying, then I'd say it's pretty good.
posted by Autumnheart at 8:51 PM on August 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

It also brings awareness to this issue, which is the first step towards fighting the systemic problem. How many people knew before this post that the city of Detroit was sticking people with $12,000 water bills for leaky pipes? Or that you could go on their website and download a PDF with enough information to log into each of these individuals' accounts?
posted by bleep at 9:32 PM on August 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

Just here to say that Tiffani is a single-minded awesome person and I was privileged to work with her at Code for America when she was first hatching this project.
posted by migurski at 10:32 PM on August 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

Where the hell is the donate link?? How could you post the article without including the link?

If you want to help.

Is this against MetaFilter rules and guidelines?
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:15 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Including the donate link in the post would be against the rules, yes: FAQ
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:41 AM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

To me, "People need running water" makes a lot more sense than the idea of Basic Income. Whether you agree with that or not, Basic Income does not currently exist. This does and it is addressing an issue that is threatening to have the social fabric of an entire city come unraveled.

Wikipedia says Detroit has 680k residents and is the 18th largest city in the US, the 4th largest in the Midwest and the largest city on the US-Canada border. If it comes apart at the seams, there will be larger repercussions, beyond its borders.

I think the systemic problem is something very deep and very large, which is why people are talking about things like Basic Income. Automation is creating more wealth and changing how the world works. There are bound to be some labor pains in the birth of a new world order.

I don't know what the solutions will ultimately be. But I do not see this as merely treating the symptoms. I see this as laying the groundwork for actual solutions that actually work in the here and now and serve as a first step towards a future that puts a floor below our citizens in a way that makes sense.

I get really tired of hearing people complain and pontificate and make excuses as to why they can't do anything about anything. Tiffani Bell saw a problem and saw a way to address it. For now, she has taken it on as her full time job. We need a lot more of that in the world and a lot less of the usual bitching, finger pointing and not-my-probleming.

She isn't even in Detroit. She is one woman. She is doing something about a problem impacting quite a lot of people. She didn't go "Well, that's sad. But, hey, everyone knows the world is going to hell and I am just one woman, so it's not like I can fix it."

Maybe I will keep the story handy for the next time some overprivileged asshat tries to tell me "Well, not like I can do anything about it!" Really? Why? No space for a soul in your goddamn wallet?
posted by Michele in California at 4:51 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

IF Detroit comes apart at the seams?? Excuse me, I thought that happened some years ago. When I was born there, it was the richest city on Earth.
posted by Goofyy at 5:48 AM on August 7, 2016

I am aware Detroit has been deteriorating for years. But potentially half the city having no water and using their yard as a toilet sounds like a post apocalyptic scenario where disease and outlawry will breed and likely then be exported. That goes well beyond what I have previously read about the city. That sounds to me like the destruction of the fabric of modern society, not just a formerly rich city falling on hard times financially and seeing people moving away because of it.

In places where you have population density like a small city but infrastructure like a third world village, you see high incidences of rape that occur when women are trying to toilet outdoors. Density of population also means that toileting outdoors is a public health crisis, not just a problem the family that lacks running water. At scale, with this happening to a large number of people, it becomes something that cannot be entirely escaped or avoided by anyone in the city. The article indicates this is also a reason to lose custody of your children, because lack of running water means your home is not fit for habitation. So families are being torn asunder.

Given that the world is currently in serious crisis and has been for years, it seems to me your assertion does not undermine any of my points. So, I don't really understand your objection. Are you saying the world is fine and Detroit having no water will not impact it? Are you saying Detroit already went to hell, so no point in sending any help now, just let them burn?

I think it is worth sending help and trying to assure some basic standards are complied with. I think the degree of crisis this program is addressing is different from what has gone on previously. Perhaps you know something I do not? Care to elucidate?
posted by Michele in California at 8:37 AM on August 7, 2016

I don't live in Detroit, but I can see it from here, and my slightly outsider take is that Detroit has failed, and we're seeing the results in stories like this. Society doesn't collapse overnight. It collapses in small ways that add up -- industry departs, people move to the suburbs while still using many of the services that the metropolis provides, tax bases dwindle, systems designed for 2 million people can't adapt to 700,000...

And that's where Detroit is now, after two generations of decline. It's not Mad Max, it's not teetering on a precipice, but it's a shambling shadow of what it was.
posted by Etrigan at 11:05 AM on August 7, 2016

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