Articles

Student-Made App Makes Detroit Government Accessible for Residents

Simplifying city-citizen interactions is not only a passion, but also a business opportunity for Abess Makki, the CEO of CityInsight.

by Perry A. Farrell, Detroit Free Press / October 5, 2017

(TNS) -- DETROIT — Abess Makki is the first male from his family to graduate from high school. And he took it a step further with a degree in nutrition from Wayne State University.

Now the 24-year-old University of Michigan grad student is chalking up another first — he’s come up with a way to streamline how Detroit Water and Sewerage customers pay their water bill, cutting down on the need to stand in long lines or take time off work.

Makki, whose family is from Sierra Leone in West Africa, is the founder and CEO of CityInsight. The Detroit-area native started his company with the goal of helping municipal utilities provide residents with better tools to manage their water usage and costs.

“This vision of the company is to make government digital,” he said. “There’s a big gap there. I started CityInsight to give insight to the citizens. The first product we made, which was the customer portal, was giving that feel you get from cable companies, credit card companies and other utilities. Detroit Water and Sewer wanted to make tools for its citizens, but they didn’t necessarily have the right team in place.”

With determination and a plan, Makki convinced DWSD to invest in his startup company, and eventually the two parties struck a licensing agreement.

In the first month, $2 million in water bills were paid through the new customer care portal by nearly 4,000 customers.

“This technology is a win for everyone,” Makki said. “CityInsight enables Detroit to collect more revenue, have more satisfied customers and promote smart consumer habits. The app went live on Aug. 21. The numbers are growing every day. With Amazon Alexa, you can essential ask what your usage is. It’ll give you a billing and give you a balance.

“I went at this hard for two years. I understand what it takes to build an app.”

With Makki’s app the DWSD customer care portal enables Detroit residents to:

—Register accounts for resident and nonresidential properties.

—Make or schedule payments using a credit card or banking information.

—Use “guest pay” feature to pay on their accounts.

—Monitor payment and account history anywhere, anytime.

—Enter a payment plan arrangement.

Makki started working on the app when he was 21 and, two years later, he had an agreement with the DWSD. Neither side would discuss financial details.

He has a staff of two: Alec Tower, a tech development specialist, and Nathan Christie, chief operating officer and a fellow Wayne State grad.

Amazon also loved the idea.

“I called them and left a message and kind of told them what I wanted to do with the app and they got back to me in 10 minutes,” he said. “We’ve had conference calls and they have repeatedly asked for updates.”

Makki’s app and idea to help municipalities provide friendly and quick customer service could go national.

“He’s a good guy,” said Robert Presnell, chief operating officer of DWSD. “Quite honestly, it has been a new administration that has come in and has begun to really look at how we do business differently in the future.

“Abess was a startup and was really concerned about water conservation. At the end of the day, we both had similar types of goals in mind because he specifically had water conservation on his mind, and water conservation is important to DWSD.

“We were also thinking about our self-service capabilities that we could offer our customers and how do we make their lives easier … a solution that is very intuitive and very simple for the customers to use.”

Makki said Presnell was instrumental in the getting the project off the ground, along with DWSD director Gary Brown and Dan Rainey, chief information officer.

“He led the vision,” said Makki of Presnell. “I didn’t build this for the water department. I built this for the Detroit residents. Going to the service center is never a good day. Our goal is to be in cities all across the country because what we find is that these tools can be valuable everywhere and to everyone.”

Sarah Cross and her husband, Charles, moved to Detroit in May. She gives the service high marks.

“I came from a condo and didn’t have a water bill,” she said. “I’ve paid with it at least two or three times. I like fact that it’s easy to use, very convenient. The fact that you don’t have to take hour or time out of my day, or sit and wait to pay the bill. It’s one big inconvenience taken off of my shoulders. I can use it anywhere. I can use my phone or my iPad when I’m out and about.”

Users sign up with their DWSD account number. The program allows customers to view usage, past bills, current bill and set up payment plans.

Makki received the David Bohnett Foundation Leadership and Public Service Fellowship at the University of Michigan.

Bohnett was a 1980 graduate, and the fellowship is awarded to three incoming master’s students each year. The fellowship offers two years of in-state tuition support.

“I love Ann Arbor,” said Makki.

His brother, Salim, 21, is a defensive tackle on the football team.

Makki is expected to graduate in May with a master’s degree in public policy.

“I plan on staying in Detroit,” he said. “I feel more and more welcomed in Detroit. … Detroit has been a place that has been great for me. To be able to start a business, to go to school there … to see something grow and get better. I don’t think you can get that unique experience anywhere else. Things are happening. Progression.”

©2017 Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.