One thing I noticed when I moved to New York was how people talk about the weather. Growing up in Palo Alto, California, I used to open the sunroof of my car with an Allen wrench in March, and close it in November. Weather wasn’t really a factor.
But for much of the world, and indeed now California with droughts and fires, weather is becoming more and more a part of peoples’ lives. From El Nino to the Polar Vortex, we’re inventing new formidable weather monikers namely because weather anomalies are so frequent. No, it's not a character from the latest Batman movie, it's the latest low-pressure system in the troposphere. Without super villain-type names, it’s hard to keep track of the latest unexpected weather, unless you're in Canada, where they still just use the term "winter." What’s more surprising than nomenclature, is how little we are doing to monitor and manage weather. There is a famous quote often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain that still holds true today, well over a century later.
Everybody complains about the weather. Nobody does anything about it.
–Charles Dudley Warner
Computation power, prediction models, and raw data are the building blocks of the weather information that you and I rely on every day. The United States Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has invested of late in enhanced supercomputers to perform weather prediction and analysis, and since 2013 they’ve upgraded their on-the-ground computing power to the tune of over $40 million. Consequently, the same has not been the case for the in-orbit satellites that deliver the raw data necessary for any prediction model. Because of budget constraints and politics, these satellites are old, and the programs scheduled to provide replacements are expensive and on protracted timelines.
Due to the immense cost of the satellites utilized by NOAA, few satellites are in orbit, redundancy is low, and the feedback loops on software updates are almost non-existent. What that means to non-techies is that while we have powerful computers on the ground, our technology in space is behind where it could be. Our prediction models are starved of the very basic raw data that powers them.
Fast forward to the present, and there are solutions that pair coordination between public and private, between NOAA science and private sector innovation.
One company that I advise, Spire, is focused on this problem in a major way. Spire is a big data company powered by nano-satellites, also known as ‘cubesats’. Nano-satellites are wine-bottle size units that are sent into Low Earth Orbit onboard rockets, stowaway payloads, and the beneficiaries of the sharing economy around rocket launches. Since these nano-satellites are so small, they can bid for underutilized transits into space.
Spire leverages advancements in remote sensing satellites, and software defined radio technology to listen to signals from Earth. Its radios can track assets across the planet, from global ships via the Automatic Identification System, to airlines via the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcasting (ADS-B), to virtually anything with broadcast capability, bringing relevance into sectors such as trade and security. Spire also leverages Global Positioning Satellite Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) sensors to interpret signals sent through Earth’s atmosphere, effectively measuring the bending of the signals to intuit the atmospheric composition, temperature, pressure, and humidity. These GPS-RO “soundings” provide the global weather data that power many weather prediction models.
There are ways of utilizing GPS-RO soundings provided by companies like Spire, de-risked by $80 million dollars of private sector investment and R&D, and supplementing the data provided by NOAA and other weather tracking agencies.
The future is not a one-size fits all solution or a Manichean battle of public versus private. It is the deft partnering of institutions that are symbiotic, surrendering ego for progress. It's about Evidence Based Policy, or putting data before politics.
The decreased cost of technology means that new solutions are possible. Companies like Spire can go from napkin idea to space in under 12-months, raise $80 million dollars across multiple rounds of financing, and plan to put 20 nano-satellites in Low Earth Orbit by the end of 2015. With these satellites, they will increase the amount of remote sensing data generated around the world, and increase the number of daily GPS-RO weather soundings by 5x within its first year of operation. With this increase in raw weather satellite data, NOAA scientists can augment and improve weather prediction models. And as computing power continues to increase, we can hone our ability to track the weather.
While I appreciate those days in California where the sunroof remained open and I remained blissfully unaware of weather, it’s a system that impacts our daily lives from agricultural production to insurance. It impacts flows of trade, and the natural endowments and economic opportunities of nations. It impacts which hipster flannel I pull out of my Brooklyn closet.
It is no small problem, and in venture capital we always ask that entrepreneurs tackle big problems in massive markets. Spire is doing just that, and it will benefit the world.