Monday, November 23, 2015

IBM Acquires Weather Company IT: Into the Data Unknown


The recent IBM acquisition of much of The Weather Company (TWC) – effectively, everything but The Weather Channel – is an odd duck.  I can’t remember anything quite like it in the computer industry before now.  Indeed, I suspect that IBM does not yet fully understand where in the search for better analytics via Big Data this new addition will take it.  To put it another way, IBM is stepping into an area where the ultimate use of the acquired data is to a surprising extent unknown.

The Potential Benefits of Launching Into the Data Unknown

As I noted in a previous piece about the initial IBM-TWC partnership, some core benefits are easy to see, and the acquisition simply extends them.  The infusion of analytics with weather data allows fine-tuning of customer and supplier behavior analysis and prediction – if it’s raining cats and dogs, the retail store may see more or less traffic than on a sunny day, and extreme weather will inevitably lead to decreased sales and deliveries.  Of equal long-term potential is the use of climate change science to avoid the “if this goes on” approach to weather forecasting that becomes increasingly unable to anticipate both secular year-round warming and increased occurrence of extreme events.  By taking over these functions, IBM allows its customers to drive weather-data acquisition as well as analytics in directions that a TWC-owned platform would likely not have done.
However, according to its presentation of the acquisition, IBM also views the TWC platform as a proven approach for leveraging Big Data in general for new insights, extending to the sensor-driven Web aka the Internet of Things (IoT) the innovative “cognitive” insights of IBM Watson.  I would argue, in fact that the TWC IT acquisition adds less – and more.  Less, because TWC is not on the cutting edge of the Fast Data “new technology wave” that I have written about previously.  More, because if and when it is combined with the raw “real-time sensor” data that governments collect about the weather and related location information (e.g., habitations, flora, fauna, and topography), it provides a simple “location state” of the individual customer or car or delivery truck that can allow as-yet-undefined risk reduction (avoiding the high-water spots in the road), “state of mind” assessment for selling purposes, and  services (rerouting based on likely washouts).

An Odd Way to Slice a Duck

Certain parts of the TWC acquisition put IBM effectively into areas that are not necessarily a good long-term fit – goodness of fit will depend on IBM’s execution of the acquisition. 
For one thing, acquiring the TWC web sites makes IBM effectively a media company.  Hurricane Sandy, in particular, created large followings for the blogs of certain weather forecasters.  While IBM can pretend that these are merely avocations for TWC personnel focused on The Weather Channel, the fact is that they represent an important news and analysis source for a significant segment of the public.  Whatever IBM does with the link between TWC content suppliers and the web sites will indicate whether IBM is going to run the media part of its slice of TWC into the ground or allow the weather forecasters and analysts that remain with TWC to continue leveraging their clout as experts into eyeballs and advertising revenue. 
And the question of who goes where brings up another area where IBM is venturing into new and not necessarily compatible territory:  weather and climate expertise.  As a recent IBM presentation citing weather data’s usefulness to insurance companies shows, applications to mobile car users that can reduce customer risks (avoiding or sitting out a storm) certainly have an upside to them, but what is not clear is whether the insurance company can use such a mobile app frequently enough to reduce overall customer risk substantially (and thereby increase profit margins). 
An obvious case where weather warnings may have an impact on customer risk profiles is a “black swan”, a seemingly unlikely event such as Hurricane Sandy.  However, in that case individual customer advice is likely to have only minor effect – rather, the weather experts must recognize the need for and drive proactive, outside-the-company warnings that ensure lots of customers take care.  TWC has such experts – but where is the place for them in IBM’s new weather-related organization?  Perhaps Watson will have such “domain knowledge” in the future; but it does not have it today, and so “weather analytics” badly needs such expertise.  And then weather analytics needs climate domain knowledge and climate change expertise, else predictive analytics applied to raw weather data will be far too frequently wrong.

The User Bottom Line:  Going Into the Data Unknown Is Good

I have dwelt on my concerns about IBM’s ability to get the most out of its new oddly sliced duck.  The fact remains, however, that, like Watson, a massive chunk of weather data is important not for its immediate applications, but for the ways in which users will drive new types of insights with it.  Just as Watson has spawned new “cognitive” ways to analyze data, driven by user use cases, so the early adopters of weather data will generate use cases that will suggest other applications that we cannot foresee.  The savvy user, therefore, will pick the right time and the right use case to begin to use weather data – and IBM’s TWC capabilities are an excellent place to start.
And if IBM figures out how to leverage TWC effectively in the areas that I have cited, so much the better for the user.  That the weather data will also lead IBM to get even more serious about climate change, I suppose, is too much to hope.  But hope I will.

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