Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II spoke at the Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan Thursday evening about water-related challenges in Michigan and how information professionals can contribute to solutions. This keynote lecture was part of the University of Michigan School of Information’s first-ever theme year centered around water conservation and access.
Gilchrist, a U-M alum, briefly worked for the Information School as the founding executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility. In his talk, Gilchrist said the Information School is important to him because it first introduced him to the concept of “information asymmetry,” or the idea that different people have varying levels of access to information.
“It was (the Information School) that taught me the lesson that really fundamentally frames how I think about the world,” Gilchrist said. “Whether it’s water access, water quality or opportunities for stronger infrastructure, this notion of information asymmetry — meaning, who knows what to invest in, who knows when to do it, who knows what caused the problem, who knows what inequities underlie injustices? — that is what we have an opportunity to deal with and to solve.”
Gilchrist said even with the abundance of freshwater from the Great Lakes in the state, there are some communities that struggle with access to clean and affordable water. For example, Gilchrist mentioned that elevated lead levels were detected in Benton Harbor in 2018. Last November, the state announced that 99% of the city’s water service lines had been inspected and had to be replaced. Gilchrist highlighted the speed with which the service lines were replaced, noting that the process should have taken seven years, but the state replaced them in 18 months.
“What it shows me is that when you decide to pay attention to a problem, you can solve it,” Gilchrist said. “And when you do so with well-equipped team members, the people who are committed to solving the problem, (who) have the best command of the tools at their disposal, they can actually do something about it.”
In 2019, Whitmer and Gilchrist created the Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate, which operates within the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The state has invested billions of dollars in water infrastructure with the 2020 MI Clean Water Plan and the Building Michigan Together Plan, which began in 2022. Gilchrist said he believes flexibility is key when it comes to providing funding for improvements to water infrastructure.
“One of the reasons that we established this is because, frankly, we had seen too many communities that had clean water issues for far too long,” Gilchrist said. “While some communities might need a service line replacement, some might need new wastewater or stormwater systems, some might need to improve those systems. We need to make sure these funding sources are flexible to meet the infrastructure challenges that will also help us from an affordability standpoint.”
Gilchrist stressed that information professionals are necessary to solve the significant and growing problem of water issues, especially in the face of climate change.
“Water management will be one of the challenges of our generation,” Gilchrist said. “In order to understand how we can meet that challenge, we need smart, we need bold, we need connected information professionals to be part of the process. So what I want you to do is consider how you can take your talents and apply them to this problem.”
Business sophomore Paris Rodgers attended the event and told The Michigan Daily that she appreciated Gilchrist’s perspective on how Information students can be a part of the solution to water issues.
“I think it’s great that he really brought light to the issue and also provided solutions in terms of promoting people to go into information and information systems and how they can be a help for their local communities,” Rodgers said.
Information junior Madison Jennings also attended the lecture and told The Daily the lecture made her think about the importance of accessibility, both to digital resources and physical ones, like water. She said she felt it was important for Information students to be informed about situations like the water crisis in Michigan.
“The (Information School) program itself is centered and emphasizes on the importance of inclusion and accessibility when creating experience for users,” Jennings said. “And I think that’s kind of what he was kind of hinting at when he was talking about the water crisis as a whole. It affects everyone at a large scale and these systems need to be fixed.”
Daily Staff Reporter Astrid Code can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.