It could be seen as a little ironic that The Weather Company – a business which monitors the movement of clouds in the atmosphere – is a huge advocate for cloud-based technology. But jokes aside, CIO Bryson Koehler says everything the weather giant has built, or is currently building, is cloud-enabled.
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In fact, outside of the television assets of the organisation, The Weather Company is almost 100% a pure public cloud company.
With 10 billion data transactions a day – 150,000 a second – and tasked with forecasting the weather for 2.8 billion locations around the world every 15 minutes on a platform which generates 4GB of data every second, the company has turned to cloud to scale up its IT to succeed in its digital transformation.
The company is, first and foremost, a data company, and cloud allows for massive movements of data on a global distribution level, says Koehler. Cloud is also the most cost-effective approach, which allows the organisation behind The Weather Channel to focus on its four core business objectives – science, safety, services and storytelling.
“Forecasting is the heart and soul of our company, and having the most accurate data is important,” he says. “But if you’re going to be a big data technology shop, you’d better have the world’s best data.”
Banking on in-house expertise
With an operation of that size and scale, Koehler says there are no commercial products available for The Weather Company to buy, so it creates its own applications in-house.
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“We are a technology company, so we build everything in house,” he says.
It uses tools such as Riak, Redis and Cassandra to help create its unique datasets. It then uses MicroStrategy, Amazon’s RedShift and its own enterprise data warehousing (EDW) platform to drill down into the data.
Its technology stack is composed of cloud-based technology at the core, which is responsive enough to meet the demand of such a large organisation. The in-house applications include its WeatherFX and Forecast on Demand apps, as well as a range of mobile and B2B applications.
The Weather Company doesn’t just used one cloud provider – it uses a mixture of Amazon and Google cloud services to ensure it never gets locked into a single supplier.
Technology permeates the business
Koehler has been at The Weather Company for two years. The company is made up of several divisions and the IT team is tasked with providing the technology which powers the entire organisation.
The best-known division is The Weather Channel, which is the most distributed TV channel in the US. Technology allows the channel to localise content so viewers get localised weather content when watching the national cable channel.
Other successful products include Weather.com and its various associated mobile applications. The Weather Channel iPad app is the second most downloaded mobile application on the Apple App Store and its iPhone app sits at number seven.
The international group also has a B2B division, which powers 50 of the world’s largest airlines, as well as being the top provider to insurance and energy markets, all of which depend on the weather. The organisation also provides on-screen weather displays to 500 local TV stations around the world.
New ways of gathering data
But when it comes to weather forecasting, Koehler says it’s not so much the technology as the science – mathematics and algorithms – which provides the right insights. But the more data the company can collect, the more accurate the forecast is likely to be.
We’re focusing on helping people make better decisions with the weather
Bryson Koehler, The Weather Company
While it has data coming in from all over the world, Koehler says there are still some places where The Weather Company doesn’t have great insights into conditions. Throughout the US and Western Europe, the organisation is able to gain real-time data from government collection facilities. The company has around 40,000 reporting stations around the world, half of which are proprietary.
“This helps to create a great forecast, but vast parts of the world are still not covered,” says Koehler.
But he believes the internet of things (IoT) will provide further accuracy to weather forecasting. As will the trend of people becoming more willing to share data from their personal devices.
The Weather Company is also turning to crowdsourcing to encourage users of its applications to tell the company what they are seeing – whether it’s sunny, stormy, or if a tree has been blown down.
“We’re focusing on helping people make better decisions with the weather,” says Koehler. He is looking closely at wearable technology and push notifications, using real-time information to such a degree that people can be informed via a message that in 10 minutes they will need to use their umbrella or take shelter.
Engaging with consumers
But Koehler realises that consumers have a lot of alerts to deal with on a day-to-day basis, from Facebook and Twitter to CNBC breaking news or a Weather Channel tornado alert, so the organisation needs to take care in how it presents notifications to the user.
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“The trick is to make them incredibly relevant and personalised,” he says. “If we know you like to go jogging over indoor water polo, we should vary the types of alerts and information.”
Koehler says the organisation needs a rich understanding of its consumers to make alerts convenient, such as saying "go jogging now, as it might rain later". But how does an organisation go about doing this?
“We’re beginning to ask better questions,” he says. “And give people a reason to answer those questions through a value exchange.”
The Weather Company will ask users what their favourite outdoor activities are, but he doesn’t think it is difficult to get people engaged about the weather because the company receives more than one million crowdsourced reports every day.
“People are interested,” he says. “Weather is a unique phenomenon that affects everyone, every day and people like to talk about it.
“Yes, you have to ask, and yes, you have to encourage, but these things are pretty basic to everyone and people are willing to interact.”