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We don’t know where all the lead pipes are. This tool helps find them

Fast Company – “President Biden wants to replace all the lead pipes left in the U.S. The only problem is we have very little idea where they are…That means that cities typically have to dig to figure out whether a pipe buried underground is lead or copper—and each dig can cost thousands of dollars. Schwartz, along with other researchers at the University of Michigan, worked on a machine-learning tool that could help the city predict where lead pipes were most likely to be, eventually forming a company called BlueConduit that started working with other cities on the same issue. Now, as the Biden administration is pushing to remove lead pipes nationally, the team is using a grant from to build an open-source tool that other cities can use to understand the scope of their lead pipe problem. The software works by pulling in data about the age of the home, the neighborhood, whether any records exist about the service line or others nearby, the size of the property, and other factors, and then uses machine learning to estimate the likelihood that the service line on the property is made from lead. When the researchers first used it in Flint in 2016 and 2017, the tool found lead pipes around 80% of the time. In 2018, the city temporarily stopped using the algorithm; residents who had lost faith in the government wanted to physically see that their own pipes were okay, rather than trusting software. But as the city dug more randomly, the hit rate dropped to 15%. The next year, after a court order, the city went back to the software…”

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