We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, Detroit, Michigan

We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective (WPD CRC) is a collaboration among community activists, academics, researchers, and designers in Detroit, Michigan studying the impact of water insecurity, water policy, social equity, and health among local residents. The research process included (1) mapping the geographic impact of water policies on the city; (2) conducting a city-wide community survey to assess the health needs after a disaster; (3) a citizen science project to test the impact of water shutoffs on residential water quality; and (4) a story mapping project to support youth in telling individual and collective narratives about the impact of austerity on their community. The community based participatory research process has provided statistically significant data to demonstrate the impact of policy interventions on water insecurity and psychological distress among residents. WPD CRC serves as an example of how community participatory research led by community-based organizations can effectively collect qualitative data from local communities and further apply to policy development. 

In 2014, due to Detroit’s bankruptcy, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began a massive water shutoff campaign for those residents who were unable to afford the water bills. This policy has a great impact on those residents who were already living below the poverty line. More than 100,000 households’ water has been turned off and faced severe problems of survival. This has led to severe social inequity for water access. To address this fatal public-health emergency, We the People of Detroit (WPD) began multiple actions, including providing water supply directly to those in need, setting the emergency water hotline, and promoting equitable water payment plans with the People’s Water Board Coalition and countless other grassroots organizations. 

To advance the research and equip the community with essential knowledge on the water crisis, WPD led the Community Research Collective in coordination with community activists, academics, researchers and designers to study this issue. The research contains four parts as follows: 

  • Mapping and otherwise visualizing publicly accessible data to understand the geographic and systematic impact of austerity policies on the City of Detroit; 
  • A city-wide community survey, adapted from the Center for Disease Control’s CASPER toolkit for assessing health needs after a disaster;  
  • A citizen-science project to test the impact of water shutoffs on residential water quality;  
  • A story-mapping project to support youth in telling individual and collective narratives about the impact of austerity policies on their community. 

CRC utilizes graphic narrative techniques to visualize the data in its research including the following steps in order:1 

  1. Make an image with existing data that answers a specific question, such as “where is water being shut off in Detroit?”, or “Are African-American communities disproportionately taken over by Emergency Managers in Michigan?” 
  2. Create a new research document by compiling data to tell a story. For instance, compiling regional water rate information to compare water bills in Detroit and suburban communities.  
  3. Make a diagram that explains a complex situation clearly. For example, utilizing the diagram to explain how water bills are structured in Detroit and its suburbs.  

In August 2016, WPD CRC published the first of the three-part series of the data visualization project on discussing the racial inequity of Detroit’s austerity policies and Emergency Management, Mapping the Water Crisis: The Dismantling of African-American Neighborhoods in Detroit. 


Publication Date: August 2016

Related Organizations:

  • We the People of Detroit

Related Toolkits:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Assessment
  • Case study
  • Engagement

States Affected:


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