When people point to the value of Open Data from government, they often cite the importance of weather data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That data has given us the Weather Channel, more accurate forecasts, and a number of weather-based companies. But the most impressive – and one of the best advertisements for government Open Data – may well be The Climate Corporation, headquartered in San Francisco.
Founded in 2006 under the name WeatherBill, The Climate Corporation was started to sell a better kind of weather insurance. But it’s grown into a company that could help farmers around the world plan around climate change, increase their crop yields, and become part of a new green revolution.
The company’s work is especially relevant in light of President Obama’s speech yesterday on new plans to fight climate change. We know that whatever we do to reduce carbon emissions now, we’ll still need to deal with changes that are already irreversible. The Climate Corporation’s work can be part of that solution.
I spoke recently with Climate Corporation CEO David Friedberg. You can listen to a podcast of our conversation here:
You’ll hear David use a number of acronyms in our conversation. Descriptions are here: CLU (Common Land Unit), RMA (Risk Management Agency), NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service), FSA (Farm Service Agency), NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), USGS (U.S. Geological Survey), and SSURGO (Soil Survey Geographic Database).
The company’s story, which you’ll hear in more detail in my interview, is a pretty remarkable one. As David Friedberg tells it, the company began with the simple insight that the weather affects the profits of a large number of businesses. “Ski resorts shut down when there’s not enough snow, golf courses don’t open when there is rain, city governments have to plow the city streets when there’s too much snow, even the lemonade stand on the corner is closed down if it’s drizzling. The weather has a broad, far-reaching impact in all these different businesses. The concept was that if we could simulate the weather we could allow the business to create a customizable insurance policy that will pay them automatically for the specific weather events that will cause them financial loss.”
This was a win-win proposition for both The Climate Corporation and the businesses it insured. With traditional insurance, companies have to demonstrate the lost value of the business they didn’t get. But how do you quantify the number of skiers who didn’t show up because there wasn’t enough powder to ski on? It would be better and simpler to have insurance that would pay a certain amount every time the snowfall was less than a certain number of inches. The Climate Corporation’s plan was to predict weather patterns well enough to write policies on that basis, by analyzing huge amounts of U.S. government weather data.
“Over time,” Friedberg told me, “we found that the best market for this model was in agriculture . . . . Weather can be a very big driver for outcomes: You could end up losing everything. Slight variations in weather could cause significant losses in profit. And these farmers were significantly underinsured under the federal crop program.”
As The Climate Corporation began to turn its attention to farmers, the company found that it needed more and better data. They started with data from two hundred weather stations around the U.S..They then expanded to use two thousand. But it still wasn’t enough: For a given farmer, the nearest weather station might still be thirty miles away. Using government data developed with Doppler radar, the company got measurements showing how much rain falls on a given farmer’s field in a day, to an accuracy of almost a hundredth of an inch. The company also got maps of terrain and soil type from the U.S. Geological Survey, built from on-the-ground soil surveys and satellite imaging, that give accurate pictures of squares of land ten meters on a side (roughly the size of a suburban backyard).
Ten years ago, this work would have been nearly impossible.
“Ten years ago,” Friedberg told me, what they do “would have been nearly impossible.” But putting the data together today, he said, “now we’ve actually got a better estimate of what’s going on at your field than you do. We’re seeing a huge improvement in satellite imagery. The cost is zero: You can get the images and process them for free. I can now use the infrared imagery of the farmer’s field and estimate exactly what date he planted his crop and what the growth stage is.”
At some point, Friedberg and his partners realized that they weren’t just in the business of selling insurance: They were getting into the business of improving agriculture on a global scale. They’ve continued to improve their models, adding data on crop yields and tying weather conditions more accurately to agricultural output. The company has developed a new service, Climate.com, that is free to policyholders and available to others for a fee. “On a daily basis, we’ll tell you what fields you can go to work on, what field should have spraying and planting done today, what field is at a growth stage where you should fertilize it down, where you should wait five days to plant.” Their goal is to be able to increase a farmer’s profitability by 20 or 30 percent – a huge increase in this vulnerable industry.
And finally – with huge relevance today – they’re able to help farmers anticipate and deal with climate change, by changing what they plant or how and when they plant it. As their website says simply:
The Climate Corporation’s mission is to help all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change.
Their work may become part of a global Green Revolution 2.0. The U.S. Government’s satellite data doesn’t stop at the border: It covers the entire planet. The Climate Corporation is now looking for ways to apply its work internationally, probably starting with Australia, which has relevant data of its own.
Start with insurance sales, end up by changing the world. The power of Open Data has never been clearer.
- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, OpenDataNow.com