"Our platform brings data management, regulatory compliance & decision support to our customers"
BlueConduit uses machine learning software to locate lead service lines, providing authorities the information they need to focus their resources and efficiently remove pipes containing lead.
Up to 10 million households in the United States connect to water through lead pipes and service lines, making them vulnerable to the health risks of lead exposure. Using predictive modelling, BlueConduit’s AI-based solution has helped cut costs by up to 70% when compared to the traditional approach of removing lead pipes in U.S. cities. The business emerged from a project by University of Michigan professors to guide Flint’s lead service line (LSL) replacement program in 2016. It has since received philanthropic funding from different sources, including $1 million from the Rockefeller Foundation last July to ensure that disadvantaged communities are able to identify lead pipes as efficiently and affordably as possible. We speak with President and COO Ian Robinson about their solution and how it addresses the challenges of lead service line replacement efforts.
Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at BlueConduit?
For more than 15 years, I have scaled start-ups, increased the real-world impact of university research, and worked in community development. I started my career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. I went to grad school at Michigan to better understand the crossroads between business and sustainability, exploring strategies to scale ideas and impact. After grad school, I worked with business incubators, doing start-up consulting, and impact investing. I bring the combination of these experiences to my work at BlueConduit.
We overcome the incomplete, inaccurate, and unreliable records in order to support cities in making crucial planning decisions
I met Eric Schwartz, co-founder of BlueConduit, in the summer of 2019 when I was managing an innovation studio at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. He described his team’s work using machine learning to help Flint, Michigan, locate its lead service lines. He outlined his visions for scaling that impact across the country. I was looking for an opportunity to be part of a mission-driven social enterprise, and it was an ideal match.
On any given day at BlueConduit, I engage in discussions with community organizers about water quality issues facing their cities, comment on proposed environmental regulations, present about BlueConduit at state water conferences, and develop and manage our company’s finances. In a dynamic, growth company like BlueConduit, there is no “typical” day. I’m energized by finding different ways to support my team and the organization as we grow.
How can digital solutions help with the challenges of lead service line (LSL) replacement?
Much of our drinking water infrastructure was planned and built at a time when there were different record-keeping standards. Record-keeping technology has shifted over time, and there are now requirements for water systems to track information about service lines that they were never required or expected to track. This is the crux of the challenge that our team solves. We overcome the incomplete, inaccurate, and unreliable records in order to support cities in making crucial planning decisions. Our platform brings data management, regulatory compliance, and decision support to our customers.
BlueConduit’s approach can help cut the costs associated with removing lead pipes; can you explain how it works? Is it possible to prioritise LSL removal based on highest risk of lead exposure?
Considering service line replacement with other infrastructure projects presents an opportunity to extend funding further
Our team pioneered the use of machine learning for service line inventory in helping the city of Flint, Michigan, find and replace its lead service lines. The goal at that time was to reduce the amount of time that residents lived with the risk of lead exposure. That same mission drives our team today. Our predictive model saved Flint millions of dollars in its replacement project. More importantly, it provided decision-makers with the insights required to target replacement efforts at locations with the greatest risk of lead exposure. We are now applying the same methodology across the country.
Our predictive models use pieces of information about homes where the service line material is already known, such as the age of home, zoning information, historic building practices, in order to predict the material at addresses where that information about pipe material is not yet known with certainty. Across more than 50 cities, BlueConduit’s models have performed over an 80% hit rate of accuracy, which has resulted in tens of millions in savings for utilities and the accelerated removal of lead as part of replacement programs.
How can an LSL inventory and removal strategy help build trust in local communities?
Public trust is essential to the work of water utilities. If damaged, it can take a long time to be earned back. That is why it is so important for water utilities to proactively engage with community members, so that residents have all of the information needed in order to understand their relative risk and steps that they can take to reduce possible exposure.
EPA’s new regulations require that water systems make their service line inventories publicly accessible, and maps are one option to do so.
With an actionable service line inventory, Toledo was able to leverage funding sources and prioritize replacement efforts
We have found that people find maps a good way to present and receive this information. In Flint and Toledo, we have built maps where community members use the map information to direct their door-to-door outreach. Our maps are multilingual, written with accessible language, and designed to be colour-blind friendly. I heard from a community group this week in Flint that continues to rely upon the map, three years after we put the map online.
Increasing efficiency is paramount. To what extent is it possible to couple LSL removal in coordination with other infrastructure projects, optimise field work and track progress?
Considering service line replacement with other infrastructure projects presents an opportunity for utilities to extend service line replacement funding further.
We work with several utilities that combine service line replacement with road-paving programs or water main replacement, so that they only have to break the pavement once. This is even more important in communities where the city is penalized for digging up recently paved streets. In most instances, the cost of those penalties is equal to the cost of replacing multiple lead service lines.
Could you tell us about a case study with a successful LDL replacement strategy?
When our team began working in Toledo, Ohio in 2020, the water utility estimated that it would take 20 years to replace all of their lead service lines. They wanted to accelerate service line replacement, particularly in environmental justice communities. But they needed better data to be able to direct resources to those neighbourhoods. Our team worked with the utility to develop an actionable service line inventory, with reliable estimates of service lines across the system. With this information, Toledo was able to leverage different funding sources and prioritize replacement efforts to Environmental Justice communities. They also have a map where residents can see their likely pipe material, understand what year their pipe will be replaced, and upload data to continually improve the service line inventory. Toledo now anticipates replacing all of its 30,000 lead service lines in the next 5-7 years. This means that the city’s lead service lines are going to be out of the ground more than 10 years sooner than previously planned.
Philanthropic funds will allow us to help under-resourced communities accelerate the process of locating their lead service lines
Blue Conduit has received philanthropic funds, most recently from the Rockefeller Foundation, to help support LSL removal, including further development of software tools. Could you comment on what you are hoping to accomplish thanks to this funding?
We are really excited about this project. I will allow us to help under-resourced communities accelerate the process of locating their lead service lines, making it easier for them to make this information publicly accessible. With this, it will empower residents with information about their service line materials and steps they can take to address any risks. We will be delivering this through a free tier of our platform for utilities to use and a nationwide map of lead service lines.
The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to using science, technology, and innovation to enable communities to flourish. These tools will help address some of the critical technical challenges to locating and communicating about lead service lines.
How have the LSL replacement efforts in the U.S. evolved in the past few years, and what are your expectations as a result of government funding becoming available in the U.S.?
There is going to be $15 billion from the federal government over the next five years for service line replacement
For a long time, we heard that money and information were the biggest barriers to start getting the lead out. Those are no longer barriers.
EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule Revisions require each utility to make a public service line inventory by October 2024, and there is going to be $15 billion from the federal government over the next five years for service line replacement. As a result, we have seen more activity toward replacing lead service lines.
There is a significant amount of funding available, but $15 billion is not going to be enough money to replace all of the lead service lines in the United States. We urge utilities to act quickly to create their inventories so that they can apply for and win the needed funding.
Thank you very much for your interest in our work and in this pressing infrastructure issue in the U.S. We know that the U.S. isn’t the only country that will need to replace its lead service lines, and we hope that our experience in North America can inform others as they address this public health issue.