Doll Avant learned the importance of data long before she became a data scientist.
As a college freshman she introduced herself to one of her professors—a renowned historian—and told him about a project she was interested in doing for his African American history class.
“I ran down my pitch, and he says, ‘That’s great, let me see the research you’ve done so far,’” Avant recalls. “I realized your big ideas don’t mean anything until you have the data to back them up. That always stuck with me.”
After graduating in 1999, Avant embarked on a career as a serial entrepreneur. She believes data is power and, through her companies, uses data to provide access to those who often lack it. Her latest venture, Aquagenuity, is a powerful example of this: a digital platform designed to make water quality data available to the public (as well as municipalities and companies), with the goal of cleaning up the U.S.’s water supply, one community at a time.
Providing Insight on the National Water Crisis with Data
When news of the Flint, Michigan water crisis broke in 2015, Avant was in a graduate program focused on data analytics. She wanted to help in the relief efforts, so partnered with a water filtration company. Her task? To delve through the data about water’s impact on public health. In the process, she found that Flint is far from the only community with poor water quality: Reports showed three thousand communities across the country had lead amounts at least double the levels in Flint.
Exposure to poor water quality is linked to a host of negative health effects. Lead and other contaminants like arsenic can cause intestinal damage, anemia, cancer, and can even trigger diabetes. Right around the time of the Flint crisis, Avant’s father developed diabetes after moving to a new area and utilizing its water supply.
“It really made me think: How many people are experiencing health issues, and they just have no idea that it’s actually related to their water?” she says. “We’re at a point where people are not aware of what’s in their water.”
And that’s how Aquagenuity was born.
Water quality data is difficult for the average person to find (it often isn’t available digitally), much less interpret. For the last two and a half years, Avant and her team of six have been scouring government data and public utility records to gather water quality data from about 40,000 U.S. zip codes with the goal of making the information available on a web platform and mobile app—arranged in colorful, easy-to-read charts. The freemium version of the app, which will launch in this spring, tells users what contaminants are in their water based on their location; a paid upgrade gives access to AI-generated recommendations about what kind of filters to use to help avoid contaminants. Eventually, she hopes to begin distributing water testing kits so users can contribute their own data to the system, as well.
Approaching a Data-Driven Solution
Avant plans to roll out Aquagenuity’s mobile app city by city, beginning with her hometown of Atlanta. Her goal is to launch the app in 15 cities across the country over the next 18 months. The point of this phased approach? Focus on each community. In addition to educating the public about water quality issues, Avant and her team will engage local governments and businesses around the data they’re uncovering.
“There are a lot of scenarios in which we believe we can be helpful,” Avant says. “Coming in as a consultant in terms of water and helping figure those solutions out and still manage the public conversation, too.”
Getting local governments on board, she concedes, can be a challenge. Water quality is an expensive issue: The price tag for eliminating lead from the pipes in Flint alone would cost an estimated $55 million. And though the contamination (and solutions) will vary across cities, the cost of replacing lead piping across the nation could amount to $1 trillion or more.
“Politicians don’t have to deal with [water quality] issues as much unless a crisis like Flint arises because [the pipes] are out of sight, out of mind,” Avant says.
But pressure from the public and from businesses in response to Aquagenuity data could spur governments and utility providers to start addressing what’s causing the water contamination.
“Data-generated sustainability is what I call it,” she says.
This content is produced by WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with Western Digital Corporation.