A long-embraced vision of the federal Earth science leadership is that the private sector will create innovative and game-changing products resulting from the nation’s investment in robust and sustained Earth science and observations. Today, that vision is in clear view. It couldn’t come at a more critical time.
That news is not good, but considering environmental intelligence advances, there is some good news. Businesses are applying publicly available data and models for a slew of new products and services enabling governments, businesses and consumers to navigate many of the challenges facing the world today. These products won’t bring back homes or lives lost, but they do provide ever-improving tools for reducing future risk and uncertainty.
Environmental intelligence businesses operate in the here and now — integrating government-provided data and other sources, along with advanced data analytics such as artificial intelligence.
Numerous companies are demonstrating what the private sector does best: rapid development of broad customer-focused solutions with the capability to scale nationally and globally. In turn, they are impacting hundreds of millions of customers daily and economic assets in the trillions.
Open data policy is one of several factors influencing the rise of successful environmental intelligence companies. Others include market demand from an information-hungry society, partnerships with leading multinational companies, deep domain expertise tied to former federal data experts and access to private investment dollars.
Since 1980, floods have cost Americans more than $1 trillion, making flooding the most expensive natural disaster in the United States. With National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data playing a central role, First Street Foundation’s Flood Factor product, which describes a property’s flood risk, is integrated into Realtor.com’s website, which receives more than 100 million views a month.
Beyond the U.S. housing market, Cloud to Street’s Global Flood Database is a flood mapping technology advancement that integrates NASA and NOAA data to track floods throughout the world in real time, on-demand, without ground data. Recently featured on the cover of Nature, Cloud to Street responds to the urgency to improve uncertainty models worldwide and reduce flood-related fatalities.
Israeli-startup BreezoMeter, now with U.S. operations, uses NASA, NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency data along with other sources to deliver hyperlocal, real-time and highly accurate air quality reporting to more than 400 million people each day. Through a partnership with Apple, BreezoMeter delivers analytics via an iPhone app so one can check air quality as easily as the weather. Its services have expanded to deliver pollen reporting and wildfire tracking.
In response to a growing thirst for water intelligence, True Elements uses artificial intelligence to pull water quality data from over 1.5 million publicly available sensors along with hundreds of federal and local databases to create a simple-to-use platform for the purpose of improving water management.
When Jupiter Intelligence launched in 2018, the Capital Weather Gang wrote, “the weather and climate risk industry has not seen a company enter the space with the mix of financial backing, technology, and intellectual heft in years, if ever.” The company, which develops tool and analytics to help businesses and governments manage their climate risks, closed a Series C funding round of $54 million in October.
Two companies leveraging climate data sources and experience from NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information are the Climate Service and FernLeaf. The Climate Service, recently acquired by S&P Global, advances climate risk data and analysis technology through its Climanomics software platform and is emerging as a leading player in climate-related financial disclosures. FernLeaf’s staff contributed to the development of the US Climate Resilience Tool Kit, which today it customizes and expands supporting municipal resilience and adaptation strategies.
With support from former vice president Al Gore and as a coalition of 11 companies, Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions) uses free and open satellite and ground-based data sources including NASA, EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey and European Space Agency, combined with artificial intelligence to track near real-time emissions.
Pachama applies satellite data and artificial intelligence for the forest carbon credit market. Pachama’s process validates carbon sequestration of forest restoration projects, which encourages and scales the market for buying and selling carbon credits.
Another company facilitating insights to land use and land cover change as well as carbon mapping is the Impact Observatory. Partnerships with Esri and Microsoft AI for Earth help to connect the Impact Observatory’s platform with millions of users.
Orbital Insights — a recognized industry leader in using observations to help organizations understand what’s happening on and to the earth — serves numerous sectors including real estate defense, financial services and energy.
These companies are leading today’s innovation in environmental intelligence. In light of their immense value to society, we might consider several questions:
- Could more be done to help facilitate the use of U.S. government data by businesses?
- Should U.S. open data policy represent the end or the starting point for facilitating data use?
- Who within the U.S. government is responsible for monitoring this rapidly changing marketplace to ensure that the nation can capitalize on these capabilities, and, more importantly, not attempt to duplicate them?
One thing is for sure, private sector environmental intelligence companies are responding to demand with highly valuable products and services. Perhaps it’s time we learn about them.
Nancy Colleton is the president of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Global Environmental Strategies.
This perspective was adopted from recent research she co-authored with Rachel Plescha: “The Environmental Intelligence Marketplace: 12 Companies Innovating the Application of USG Earth Observations Data.” The funding source for this research, the Earthrise Alliance, is also an active participant in Climate TRACE.
Colleton consults with BreezoMeter and has long-standing professional relationships with numerous representatives of companies included in this research.
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