Using Technology to Tackle Water Issue

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Metro Detroit native Abess Makki, founder and CEO of Detroit-based CityInsight is devoted to helping municipal utilities provide residents with better tools to manage their water usage and costs.
CityInsight is a civic-tech company that provides mobile applications to municipalities.  It was founded by Wayne State University alumn Makki in 2014 and was in direct response to the water shutoffs that resulted from more than 20,000 unpaid water bills by city residents.  This difficult issue led to the creation of Amazon Alexa, an enabled portal focused on streamlining and improving communications for residents while enhancing bill pay options based on convenience.  The app also allows residents to pay public water utility bills, receive notifications and track water usage in real-time.
I asked Makki about his thoughts on developing an app for city residents, challenges to overcome and initial results to date.

Lee:  You’re working with Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) and came up with an app to support the department.  What is it and how did you come up with the idea?

Makki:  The idea came about after realizing the disconnect and lack of tools municipal governments provide to residents. I had the opportunity to pitch the idea for a water app very early on to Detroit’s Chief Information Officer, Beth Niblock. She and the city have been very supportive of the technology and instrumental in the launching of our company.

And the DWSD customer care portal (water app) enables Detroit residents to:

  •  Register accounts for residential and nonresidential properties.
  •  Make or schedule payments using a credit card or banking information.
  •  Use “guest pay” feature to pay on other accounts.
  •  Monitor payment and account history anywhere, any time.
  •  View and track water usage to more closely manage monthly expenses.
  •  Enter a payment plan arrangement.

Lee:  How long were you in development before rolling it out in August?

Makki:  It was a seven-month development with the support of DWSD’s team including Director Gary Brown, COO Robert Presnell, CIO Dan Rainey and IT Manager Paul Fulton.  The CityInsight team includes, COO Nathan Christie and Developer Alec Tower.

Lee:  What challenges did you have to overcome and how did you navigate these obstacles?

Makki:  The biggest challenge was consolidating all DWSD’s services into a simple and easy to use interface. We overcame this by developing many different use cases and rigorously testing the app on a daily basis. Our mode of thinking was always — “what’s the simplest and easiest way to present information to residents?”

Lee:  Water shut-offs have been a significant issue in Detroit and widely-publicized. How does the app address these issues?

Makki:  For customers looking to track and manage their water usage online, they can now do that through the app. DWSD is improving business practices by delivering compassionate customer service.  In the past, customers would have to stand in line and could only access the service center during regular business hours. CityInsight’s portal can be accessed 24/7 through a mobile device, tablet or computer. The web-app is another avenue customers can pursue to eliminate waiting in line.

Additionally, kiosks have also been added at service centers to make things faster and easier for residents.
 
Lee:  What have been the results-to-date regarding household penetration usage since it was launched in August?
 
Makki:  In just over 10 weeks, 7,500 registered users have paid $4.5 million in water bills.

Lee:  And what will it take to expand usage across all households in the city?  Is it a free download?
 

Makki:  The goal is to continue to add features to engage users and make their lives easier. We hope to continue to improve and update the portal in the years to come.  All Detroiters can access the portal free of charge via a mobile-web browser. Just visit www.detroitmi.gov/paymywaterbill

Lee:  Why should a resident use it and what’s been the overall response by users?

Makki:  “Skip the line and pay your bill online.” The portal is the easiest way to make a payment to DWSD. It will take two minutes of your time to make a payment and receive a confirmation. The response has been great from users. They’re hoping to utilize this tool for other city services in the future.
Lee:  You mentioned to me other cities are looking at Detroit. Why?
 

Makki:  Detroit is America’s comeback city and a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. In such a short amount of time Detroit has made great strides. The revitalization is real!

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