How Big Data Means “Bigger is Better” for Weather Safety & Resilience

9-3-15 Figure 4 Data Comparison Final

As conversations about the application of Big Data come out of the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos this week, I recall how the headline, Is IBM Building the Most Powerful Weather Service the World Has Ever Seen?, made perfect sense to me. The article described how IBM purchased The Weather Company’s digital and data assets in a deal inspired by opportunities in Big Data. The Wall Street Journal valued the transaction at more than $2 billion, and IBM described their rationale:

With this acquisition, IBM is going to harness one of the largest big data               opportunities in the world — weather. Weather is probably the single largest swing factor in business performance — it impacts 1/3 of the world’s GDP and in the U.S. alone, weather is responsible for about half a trillion dollars in impact. Weather affects every aspect of the economy – energy usage, travel and transportation, new construction, agricultural yields, mall and restaurant traffic, etc.

This move is a profound illustration of the opportunity that Big Data presents in the realm of disaster resilience, a topic we addressed in our paper, Understanding the Intersection of Resilience, Big Data, and the Internet of Things in a Changing Insurance Marketplace.

Truly, with $500 Billion (yes they say billion) in opportunity costs on the line, Big (weather) Data can not only inform to, but can revolutionize industries and movements across the world.

In my last blog, I discussed the movement behind resilience metrics—an issue that can be categorized as a “Big Data” problem. Like all sectors, we’re experiencing the advent of exploding amounts of data, and one growing source of this data is from the Internet of Things (IoT).

One IoT example in homes is the Nest Thermostat. The device not only indicates the temperature in your house, but it issues alerts if it detects significant temperature swings. The obvious advantage is that you learn of potential system problems right away. Consider the power of learning that your home temperature is dropping during winter weather conditions. This could provide invaluable lead time to prevent costly damage like frozen pipes, especially if you’re away from home when the alert arrives. The device can help you keep up with routine maintenance as well by tracking air filter usage, and reminding you when filters are ready to be changed.

Smart home technology like Nest’s helps us understand IoT and information (data) creation, but the questions of how to harness and leverage all the new information once we have it takes us back to the Big Data side of the equation…

Big Data issues are taking center stage in our movement as social science efforts explore the interrelation of Big Data and resilience at the United Nations’ Global Pulse, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Japan Science and Technology Agency, and the World Bank. These initiatives raise common issues around resilience and Big Data, including:

  • How can we protect privacy while still benefitting from the data?
  • How (can) the different, emerging resiliency efforts integrate into an understandable system?
  • Who are the decision-makers, data owners, and what are their rights?
  • Should insurers/reinsurers heighten engagement or simply design their own system?

It’s clear that tremendous value lies in the use of Big Data, like the IBM weather data deal described above. What we envision is applying Big Data on building features managed through a philosophy of transparency to benefit residents and communities alike. We want to capture and share the relevant building data that drives ultimate home performance during a disaster or over time, and I will cover this in a future blog.

IBM’s vision for Big (weather) Data is just the start. We all must get and stay involved to ensure we leverage Big Data, one of most promising and powerful tools for creating a reliably strong, safe and durable built environment. As we know, that is the most essential element of resilience.

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