Tel Avivians Throw Cold Water on City Water Fountain Pilot

Detractors say the project providing clean cold water free of charge to registered users constitutes an invasion of privacy and excludes the poor.

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Seven new water fountains that will provide pedestrians with chilled filtered water were installed last week around Tel Aviv as part of a Tel Aviv Municipality pilot project it is running with a startup company called Woosh. The water stations supplement regular water fountains on the street and in some instances replace them, but Woosh stations require users to provide a phone number, credit card or ID chip and are designed only to fill water bottles, unlike regular drinking fountains.

Woosh was founded in 2010 by entrepreneur Itay Tayas-Zamir with the support of Mazeh 9, a Tel Aviv municipal startup incubator. The city agreed to let Woosh use its infrastructure as part of the pilot. The company plans to roll out the water dispensers elsewhere in Israel and abroad. In Tel Aviv the water, provided by the city, will be free of charge though in time when water fountains are placed elsewhere a fee may be charged. The people at Woosh say their dispensers are designed to reduce the waste and cost of bottled water. And, although they wouldn't provide the actual polling data, they say they have survey results that show that 86 percent of the Tel Aviv residents questioned avoid drinking from public drinking fountains.

The company pointed out that although the water fountains have already been installed, they will only be operational next week, by then the terms of use will be posted on the company's website and on the drinking fountains themselves. Woosh said it would not provide the customer information it collects to any third-party including the Tel Aviv municipality itself.

The installing of these new water fountains received some backlash on the Internet with people expressing outrage over the requirement that users identify themselves by phone number, credit card or ID chip. The project, detractors say, constitutes an invasion of privacy and excludes the poor, and does so with public funding. Woosh insists that collecting personal details is important. "Our water stations are there to create a personal experience, because we believe that that way people will treat the water with respect and use the stations only for drinking and not for washing their hands, dogs, etc, which is why people stop using public drinking fountains," the company stated in a Facebook post.

One Web user by the name of Oz Steinmetz gave his take on why he has a problem with the setup: "What about the practical and human aspect? How do you drink from the machine if you don't have a bottle? How do disabled people use a machine at such a height? What about children? How is a homeless person or someone who just doesn't have a credit card supposed to drink from the machine if he is thirsty? And of course that's not to mention providing free water to African refugees [many of whom have come to Tel Aviv]."

Over the weekend, following the objections, one of the machines installed in Gan Meir park was vandalized; the credit card slot was damaged and graffiti was scrawled on it.

Although the company says its terms of service will be issued when the water fountains are operational, in the meantime, they have already been shown to be ill-equipped to secure private user information in accordance with the privacy laws. A Google search led to the official Woosh website, which provided the account details of Tayas-Zamir, the company founder. The security breach was fixed once this problem was made public.

The city issued a statement saying in part: "The Woosh water fountains have been installed in addition to water fountains around the city, which are freely available for use. The use of Woosh fountains does not require a credit card. They can be operated with a chip supplied at no charge by Woosh, with a Tel-O-Fun [municipal bicycle rental] chip, with a DigiTel [club] card or with a personal identification number."

tay Tayas-Zamir, founder of Woosh, next to one of the new water fountains.Credit: Ido Kenan, Room404.net

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