Collaborating Authors


How AI Found Flint's Lead Pipes, and Then Humans Lost Them

The Atlantic - Technology

More than a thousand days after the water problems in Flint, Michigan, became national news, thousands of homes in the city still have lead pipes, from which the toxic metal can leach into the water supply. To remedy the problem, the lead pipes need to be replaced with safer, copper ones. That sounds straightforward, but it is a challenge to figure out which homes have lead pipes in the first place. The City's records are incomplete and inaccurate. And digging up all the pipes would be costly and time-consuming.

ActiveRemediation: The Search for Lead Pipes in Flint, Michigan Machine Learning

We detail our ongoing work in Flint, Michigan to detect pipes made of lead and other hazardous metals. After elevated levels of lead were detected in residents' drinking water, followed by an increase in blood lead levels in area children, the state and federal governments directed over $125 million to replace water service lines, the pipes connecting each home to the water system. In the absence of accurate records, and with the high cost of determining buried pipe materials, we put forth a number of predictive and procedural tools to aid in the search and removal of lead infrastructure. Alongside these statistical and machine learning approaches, we describe our interactions with government officials in recommending homes for both inspection and replacement, with a focus on the statistical model that adapts to incoming information. Finally, in light of discussions about increased spending on infrastructure development by the federal government, we explore how our approach generalizes beyond Flint to other municipalities nationwide.