Harvard alum, an accomplished entrepreneur, data scientist, and businesswoman, Doll Avant is now taking on America’s water crisis. Avant’s passion for providing clean and adequate water within the United States started at home. When her father was diagnosed with diabetes out of the blue, Avant decided to do some research surrounding the water quality in his neighborhood and discovered arsenic in local water supplies. Her findings led her to ask the question, “How many health issues are related to our water supply?”
In 2014, Avant had no choice but to notice the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. After volunteering to help, she found out that there are a number of locations with lead in their water like Flint. Inspired to make a change from her time in Flint, Michigan, she dedicated herself to make water quality data accessible and help people figure out what’s in their water. Her company, Aquagenuity, is on a mission to improve the quality of life for people in the United States who are exposed to water pollution and threatened by water scarcity every day. Aquagenuity also serves as a water quality Data-as-a-Service platform (DaaS). The app provides up-to-date, actionable water quality for consumers, corporations and smart cities, allowing users to easily find out what’s in their water and how it impacts them from a health or regulatory perspective. Users also receive a customized roadmap so they can take action, reduce risks, and improve their total water score.
I recently spoke with Avant about data-driven sustainability, Aquagenuity’s blockchain database and how she’s made an impact with her company.
Dominique Fluker: Discuss your journey with tech entrepreneurship. What brought you to pursue a career in data science?
Dolly Avant: I believe that entrepreneurship is 21st-century activism. During my time as a Singularity Global Impact Fellow at NASA Research Park, I learned from Founder Peter Diamandis that entrepreneurship can best be leveraged as a tool for changing the world when we utilize exponential technologies (like blockchain, data science, and artificial intelligence) to solve the world’s biggest “billion-person problems.” This is what led me to seek ways to apply data science to the grand global challenge of water.
When the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan hit the headlines a few years ago, most people saw it as a government failure or a leadership problem, but as a data scientist, I saw it as a data problem. Simply put, the people who needed to know what was in their water did not have access to that data until it was much too late. As I dove deeper into the research regarding water’s impact on public health in the United States, I learned that there are actually 3,000 locations in the United States with MORE lead in their water than Flint, Michigan. So that led me to sharpen my skills as a data scientist and build a team. We’re dedicated to exploring innovative ways to use water quality data as a trigger for corrective action instead of waiting until people get sick.
Fluker: Noticing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan you decided to act by founding, Aquagenuity, a water quality (DaaS) platform. Share how Aquagenuity works.
Avant: I’ve spent the last three years aggregating water quality data for the entire United States (from sources like the EPA, public utilities, municipalities, and other research institutions) into our award-winning, proprietary database (honored by Google as “the world’s largest water database”). The baseline data fuels all of the innovation at Aquagenuity; on top of the core data, we then added a correlation layer to relate water quality data with relevant health and regulatory information. Finally, we added algorithms & analytics to make the data actionable.
How It Works for Consumers:
Aquagenuity gives “data to the people” and lets average citizens know what’s in their water before people start getting sick (#preventanotherflint). Our data helps consumers make better decisions about their eating/drinking habits, the places they choose to live, the businesses they choose to patronize, the products they choose to buy, and the demands they make on local government officials – just by entering their zip code.
With our free mobile app, a family looking for a new home can search not just traffic, crime & schools but can also search by water quality. In our partner cities, local citizens even receive real-time notifications if there’s a sudden change in local water quality, or if they walk into a restaurant where the water quality is poor.
The app also provides health recommendations – so for example if a user lives in an area that has high levels of arsenic in the water, the app will tell them that this toxin has been linked to diabetes and most importantly give tips for how to protect themselves by changing their habits or getting a filter that is NSF-certified to remove that geo-specific contaminant.
How It Works for Corporations and Cities
Aquagenuity helps corporations protect shareholder value & helps cities avoid liability by offering the world’s only water certification driven by real-time data. We analyze available data based on a proprietary mix of 5 key metrics to provide a “Total Water Score,” similar to a credit score. Companies & cities can use their water score to track water performance against historical benchmarks & mitigate future water-related risks with ongoing monitoring.
Fluker: How has Aquagenuity made an impact within the Flint, Michigan community and beyond?
Avant: In the Summer of 2018, Google flew me up to Flint Michigan along with 4 other innovators (collectively we were named the Google “Women of Water” to film a short docuseries. While we were there, our team passed out bottled water to thousands of families in Flint who still do not have access to clean water (nearly 4 years after the crisis first hit headlines); interviewed local students about their experiences growing up in Flint during the water crisis; and talked to local politicians about the long road to recovery that still remains.
And although the tragedy in Flint received all the headlines and attention, the Aquagenuity database shows that there are still thousands of communities in the United States facing growing water challenges and dangerous levels of contamination.
Fluker: Share how Aquagenuity is making water quality data accessible while doing preventive work. How is Aquagenuity tackling the water problem nationwide?
Avant: At Aquagenuity, we have a singular mission: making water quality data easy to access and easy to understand for the non-technical user. We have gone far beyond providing a list of toxins and parts per billion found in local water supplies (gibberish that means almost nothing to the average consumer); instead, we make water quality data visual, color-coded, and relevant. We even provide testing kits, sensors, and IOT-enabled technology to provide water quality data in real-time. This way, even if you don’t have a degree in chemistry or environmental engineering, you can still understand what’s in your water, what it means for your health, and most importantly what to do about it.
How We Help Cities
In order to spread the word and get the free app in the hands of as many people as possible, we’re developing partnerships with more than 80 U.S. cities, where we’ll be providing services such as:
- Digitizing water alerts/boil advisory notifications so they come directly to users’ smartphones
- Installing the world’s first sensor grids across metropolitan regions to provide a real-time water quality forecast
- Helping cities better track and preserve their limited water resources without jeopardizing the quality of life for citizens so they can avoid costly crises like those experienced by Flint, Michigan and Capetown, South Africa last year.
Fluker: How do you see Aquagenuity expanding over 3-5 years?
Avant: As our company grows over the next few years, our objective is to build the most comprehensive water quality database in the world. Far beyond the work we’ve done aggregating water quality data for all 50 states domestically, we’ve already started working with partners in the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa to begin the process of aggregating water quality data and installing sensor grids and communications network that will be able to capture this data in real-time.