Locating Lead – BlueConduit and Innovation Partnerships
Researchers at the University of Michigan designed software that uses machine learning to help the City of Flint bring clarity to lead service line inventory and replacement. Innovation Partnerships collaborated with researchers, Eric Schwartz and Jacob Abernethy, to launch BlueConduit, a startup that has already helped dozens of communities nationwide save millions of dollars, locate and fix lead service lines faster, and protect the health and safety of residents.
“We really love our lives as academics, and from that position, we have this real privilege of being able to work with Innovation Partnerships. This allows us to do something with a mission, a social enterprise.”
Article by Kelsey Keeves
Eric Schwartz, an assistant professor of marketing in the Ross School of Business, attributes his interest in data analytics to its ability to create more equitable communities. This helped lead Schwartz to co-found BlueCoundit, a company that uses machine learning tools to find lead pipes that need replacing, with Jacob Abernethy. Abernethy and Schwartz met at the University of Pennsylvania when they were students before the pair came to U-M as assistant professors.
In 2015, Abernethy recruited Schwartz to be an advisor to the Michigan Data Science Team, a collegiate data science team that competes in challenges involving developing predictive data analytics. The group’s use of data tools to solve problems affecting the local community was a natural fit for Schwartz, especially when they started having conversations with the city of Flint on how their data skills could be applied to the problems the city was facing in the aftermath of the water crisis.
Together, based on the work they did with the undergraduates, they started using the data available to create the machine learning program that would lead to establishing BlueConduit.
Schwartz joined the University of Michigan in 2013. Before arriving in Ann Arbor, he spent nine years earning his Ph.D. in marketing from the Wharton School of Business and his bachelor’s in mathematics and Hispanic studies, both at the University of Pennsylvania.
His research at the Ross School of Business focuses on the use of quantitative methods to examine and try to predict customer behavior. Schwartz uses tools including machine learning and other statistical studies to understand what drives the consumer decision-making process.
Schwartz credits his interest in the real-world application of data science to his Ph.D. advisor’s outlook on the subject. “He used statistics to solve problems in business, but did it with clarity and transparency for both teaching and application,” said Schwartz. “I thought it would be a really flexible way to be in research.”
Working with U-M’s Innovation Partnerships allowed Schwartz and Abernathy to launch BlueConduit while keeping their primary career focused on teaching and research. “We really love our lives as academics, and from that position, we have this real privilege of being able to work with Innovation Partnerships. This allows us to do something with a mission, a social enterprise.”
“We truly could ask the questions: what is the best vehicle for us to have the biggest impact? How can we take this national? How can we improve the lives of as many people as possible?”
BlueConduit is being utilized in over 50 U.S. cities to find lead pipes. With assistance from a $3 million grant from Google, they are working on an open-source machine learning tool that will allow communities across the country to start identifying lead pipes
“BlueConduit is dramatically expanding our impact in lead service lines and into the water compliance industry. We’re also pursuing a range of other ways to reduce environmental hazards and hazardous infrastructure, finding and remediating these problems in cities and communities across North America.”