Reducing Water Shutoffs through Behavioral and Data Analysis

Partners: South Bend Department of Innovation and Technology & Department of Public Works
Status: Completed June 2017
Github Repo:
Team: Sherry Shenker, Joe Walsh, and Lauren Haynes

In this project, DSaPP conducted exploratory analysis around water shutoffs to determine if the scale of the problem is sufficient to generate city policy or operational changes and suggest possible interventions. The analysis identified potential problems with the bills the City sends residents that South Bend’s Behavioral Insights Team used the results to devise and test better water bills.


Every month, the City of South Bend disconnects the water services of over 650 accounts due to persistent nonpayment of the account’s utility bill. Over the course of the year, 5,489 accounts – 11% of all accounts – have their water shut off at least once. Though most accounts manage to pay the amount required to be reconnected within a day or two of disconnection, there are still significant costs to individuals and the city. Residents incur an additional fee due to disconnection (not to mention the inconvenience and stress of losing running water), and the city expends resources on turning the account’s water off and on and answering a large volume of 311 calls related to shut offs.

The City of South Bend wanted to reduce the number of water shutoffs, so they partnered with DSaPP to develop a deeper understanding of the human behavior that characterizes water shut offs and quantify the scale of the problem and its consequences so that the City could design an effective behavioral intervention.  

Using the City’s utility and 311 data, as well as the American Community Survey, DSaPP charted the water-shutoff process, from the first missed payment to restoration of service, estimated non-compliance rates at each step, and compared non-compliance to the City’s economic and demographic patterns. We also spoke with City employees and collected example bills.

This project generated several findings:

  • Customers with at least one shutoff are more likely to pay in person or on the phone and less likely to pay by bank transfer, suggesting access to credit is a factor for many residents.
  • Two-thirds of customers pay their outstanding bills the day their water is shut off, and on average they pay double what they would have paid the day before, suggesting the majority of water bill delinquencies may be due to other factors.
  • Not only were water bills to late payers plain looking and easily ignored; they also did not accurately report the amount of money owed.

South Bend’s Behavioral Insights Team used this information to design new water bills with bold red messages detailing potential consequences for paying late, including the money it might cost, to encourage more timely payments.

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