Business Tech: Snowmagedon
Everybody talks about the weather, as the old joke goes, but nobody does anything about it. In Australia, as my friend Ross delighted in pointing out it was 32 degrees — Celsius — while in much of the United States, it was below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. He was looking out the window and thinking about wearing shorts. Over in my part of the world, it was easy to look at snow and think "Parking nightmare" or "no school." Today, however, I'd like to look at the business of snow. There's no business like snow business.
With the Winter Olympics in full swing, it is easy to remember that snow has its own set of sporting events. While many Ski lodges have snow making apparatus, the ubiquity of snow on every street makes skiers think about taking a trip. Nature provides some excellent advertising. If you doubt this, just look around you the next time a winter storm hits and people begin to attempt the driving and walking challenges involved in getting to work. The ones who are smiling and whistling to themselves, those are the ones dreaming of snowboards, sleds, and skis.
For the Ski lodge operator, incorporating weather data in their projections is critical. It helps explain the seasonal highs and lows on P&L reports, for example. Even more interesting, when the weather data disagrees with those rises and dips — that's when you know that a deeper dive into the data is valuable. Finding those contrariness may help you plan for the less obvious patterns of your business.
On the other side of the world, tracking the heat — and the brush fires — can tell warm weather venues about their own ebb and flow. Even for businesses that are less affected by the weather, it can be important to incorporate that data. Once you have some useful patterns, you'll want to move beyond just recording the weather to reporting predictions as a planning tool.
In the U.S. there are some excellent sources for data — both actual and predicted — including the NOAA and the oddly named Weather Underground. Details on the Weather Underground API can be found here: http://www.wunderground.com/weather/api/ .
They indicate that they have global data, but I haven't checked into that as yet. If any of you do, I'd be interested to know how good it is.
For the NOAA data, you can start here:
Of course, different people need to consume data different ways. So, while I used the word 'reporting' you can feel free to say 'inquiry' or 'dashboard' instead. I did a project recently where I used the Google Charting API to create a weather dashboard. It has been featured on the local news here a few times. It is also being piped into an educational center.
Much like every other kind of data we collect, once you have it, you'll see other ways to use it.
The White Cliffs
Here's a less obvious business example: Insurance. If I were working for, or consulting with, an insurance company, it would add to my value if I were a source of weather data. Cars and homes get damaged in storms. Not just the winter ones; all storms create property risk. Of course, winter brings unique risks. Ask anyone who has parked on the street and come out to tires slashed by the snow plows. Black ice and other hazards will also increase the number of claims that winter can produce.
Insurance is a business that literally bets on future outcomes. Adding a known predictive model will give that sort of business a small leg up. Everyone is looking for an edge. As IT people, we have the chance to provide one.
Salt of The Earth
I have a prospective client who, among other things, sells ice melting products. During my initial meeting with them, the phone kept ringing. Every conversation was about rock salt, magnesium chloride, and other melters. With a record number of winter storms, everything from shovels to kitty litter — good for getting traction in snow when your car is stuck — can run into short supply.
Another less obvious example: If snow means salt, salt means soil damage. Most ice melts are harsh on plants. When end of season snow falls, gardening business should see the opportunity to offer to do soil tests for their clients. Fixing the imbalance proactively creates good will. Thinking beyond the cold season is good business.
I certainly am not here to argue that weather prediction is a prefect science. However, it is getting progressively better and we do have an obligation to look at relevant data, even when it is indicative instead of solid. To be fair to the meteorologists of the world, all predictive models have flaws. Ask anyone who has attempted to model the stock market.
Snow Sorry to See You go
Snow is a business. Snow removal, from selling the tools and chemicals to going door-to-door with a shovel, is a business. If you are supporting these sorts of businesses, you need to look to the skies for some of your answers.