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I am a graduate student, and I am interested in doing my thesis on the modeling of utility networks, and how they are related / dependent on each other. A specific case I would like to model is the effect of simulating the effects on water treatment and delivery networks, from interruptions in electrical networks. I have located some open water network data, and I can also extract electrical network data from sources like OpenStreetMap, but I would still need some information about where water treatment plants are located, and if they also happen to be connected via underground cables.

I thought about contacting the city on which I am planning on doing my modeling, but I feel as though it may be alarming to them to have a random person (currently going to school in a foreign country) suddenly asking questions about their critical infrastructure. When asked why, my truthful answer of "I want to assess where the network may be most vulnerable to interruption" would likely not settle any uncertainties.

I am wondering if anybody has any experience in approaching this kind of situation.

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    Well, for a start, send the email from your official university account and begin it with "I am a research student at City University working with Professor Expert on modeling utility networks and their interdependencies." – David Richerby Jun 1 '17 at 8:46
  • Maybe ask for outdated data (and of course include the advice David gave)? They might have data that is helpful for your theoretical model and your work, but is not a danger to the city. Still, it might be a simple question of "this data is secret, so you can't have it, no matter who you are", so be prepared to not get anything. – Dirk Jun 1 '17 at 8:51
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    Perhaps one should focus on a nearby city in the country you are in. They might be willing to help their local university, and you can go over there in person with your professor to kick things off. I have found utility/facility folks to be quite open, likely because normally nobody cares about them. – Jon Custer Jun 1 '17 at 13:10
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Academic fieldwork is often a political game and appearing legitimate is certainly a key issue. I think if you are legitimate and upfront about where you work and what you want to do that aspect can be covered quite easily. But if there are sensitive data that they are not allowed to share, it will not matter who you are.

I think the first thing to do is to disclose your affiliation and explain what your are working on and how this organization's data are relevant to your study.

There are other aspects to consider so I will go slightly off topic here. It's sometimes very difficult to explain academic imperatives even to highly educated staff who work in other types of environments. They might perceive your work as an audit of their practices and can interpret your analysis as a challenge to their expertise. They might also want oversight on your writing and ask you to present their work in a positive way. You will have to be very diplomatic in that regard.

I think it safer to discuss data policy in advance: what you want to gather, what you will be showing in your thesis. They might ask for control over how their data will be published. You need to know in advance, ideally in written, what is OK and what not. The last thing you need is them to give you trouble when you're finishing up your thesis or after a paper is published.

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