Up Next: The Weather Channel Forecasts the Business Value of Big Data

REDMOND, Wash. — Feb. 12, 2012 — Weather is money. It can be a fickle profit maker or shaker. Weather can propel an upstart skydiving outfit in Argentina, while freezing up national economies in Asia. And the more precisely businesses, nations and people can understand, predict and plan for weather, the more money they can make. So it’s no wonder organizations big and small, across industries and continents, seek the very best weather information to help create their own fortunes.

Bryson Koehler
Bryson Koehler, chief information officer at The Weather Company (TWC).

Here’s where The Weather Company (TWC), the parent company of The Weather Channel, comes in. TWC understands that weather forecasts are much more than a reason to stay up for the 11 o’clock news; weather provides a healthy business opportunity that extends far beyond a segment on a TV news broadcast. And, according to The Weather Company Chief Information Officer Bryson Koehler, the recent rise in data volume, velocity and variety only means TWC can improve their forecasts at perpetually faster rates.

MNC: So what does big data mean for The Weather Company?

Koehler: We are big data. Weather is probably the biggest big data platform. Weather plays a massive role in how you work, how you live, how you play and how you shop. It impacts a significant portion of the world’s activity, and big data is about understanding how consumer behavior intersects with and is influenced by weather.

MNC: What led The Weather Company to implement a big data solution?

Koehler: The most intriguing part of this story is that weather is all around us and it impacts decisions we make on a daily basis; it’s the largest influencer in your life that you don’t always pay attention to. However weather is also entrenched in the business world, providing us with an opportunity to help companies make intelligent decisions as it relates to weather. And as you know, weather is dynamic. Figuring out the weather once doesn’t matter. What does matter is that once you understand how people have reacted to weather in the past, you can extrapolate to predict how people will act in the future. This is fascinating to us, and maintaining our position as the world’s best weather forecasting organization is really an exercise of big data.

MNC: What are your business goals in terms of big data capabilities with forecasting?

Koehler: We provide services to industries including aviation, energy and many local broadcast television networks in the United States. With big data, we are helping our customers understand the data, so that they can take action. For example, sometimes the weather impacts travel at the last minute. The reality behind the scenes is that we knew very well—six hours or three days in advance—exactly what was going to happen. If we take weather as a big data exercise, we can help our customers act on that data to forecast the impact that it would have on aviation flight paths and systems, as one example.

MNC: Has anything surprised you since you started to implement big data solutions?

Koehler: The most surprising thing is how large the impact of big data is on day-to-day business and how little everyone has known about the specifics of those impacts.

MNC: Does leveraging big data tools make it easier for The Weather Company to give people better information on how weather can impact them?

Koehler: Advertisers can make real-time decisions around the ads they buy or run based on the weather—for a better return on their investment. We know that when it’s cold, people buy soup. But how cold does it need to be? We can define the trigger conditions for increased soup sales—X degrees, X wind chill, and X cloud cover. The ability to personalize data to target consumers who are in the right place and have the right conditions is a really big deal.

MNC: How much data does The Weather Company manage?

Koehler: The implementation we’re working on now combines data and moves it to a non-relational data store when it makes sense. We call this the SUN Platform, our storage utility network. With this deployment, we will centralize our multiple petabytes of data and the 10 or 20 terabytes of weather data that we ingest every day. We manage both a high velocity of data and a large long-term cache of historical weather information.

MNC: Is big data changing the way your company delivers content and people consume it?

Koehler: Regardless of how it’s delivered –on television networks, mobile applications or websites—weather information drives behavior. You don’t need a lot of data to describe a sunny day. You need a lot of data when you have a complex storm system moving through a city. Instead of delivering the same weather forecasts to everyone, we can personalize and enhance the consumer experience. You’ll see a lot of changes to our product as we continue to learn how weather drives consumer behavior.

MNC: Is there anything you’re doing to empower your employees to manage big data?

Koehler: The first thing is getting the right systems and architecture in place. The speed at which people want to store new data continues to increase, so we need to be flexible and responsive to requests for any type of data. If somebody says she needs pollen data for the weather in Scotland, we need to ensure that we can categorize, store and synthesize that data through our products very quickly.

MNC: What is Microsoft doing to support The Weather Company in getting insights from big data?

Koehler: Microsoft is doing a great job of helping people understand why big data is valuable and how companies can use it to improve their business. Microsoft also provides an incredible set of tools and technologies that make it possible to glean insights from big data. But it is more important right now to educate executive teams and decision makers about why big data is important to them.

MNC: Why did you choose Microsoft for your big data solutions?

Koehler: The question I would ask is: why do we continue to choose Microsoft? I view Microsoft as a strategic business partner in terms of the overall technology foundation that we’re putting in place. Microsoft products are uniquely positioned to solve big data problems.

MNC: Do you have information or anecdotes you’d like to add?

Koehler: Weather influences more than a third of the world’s GDP on a daily basis. It’s a foundational arm of any big data strategy. The Weather Company is excited about partnering with Microsoft and organizations around the world to leverage data that helps everybody make better business decisions.