The weather: More than just a conversation starter

Vice President, Watson Internet of Things Platform, IBM

For thousands of years, humans have predicted the weather by tracking the seasons, looking at the shapes of clouds and watching the flight of birds. Because we have relied so heavily on agriculture during much of our history, human societies around the world have devoted much effort to tracking the seasons and predicting the weather in their regions. Indeed, Stonehenge—to give just one example—is thought to have been designed as an astronomical aid to help track the passage of the seasons; even today people use it to mark the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Since the late 1700s, people have gone to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for their weather forecasts. The almanac is famed for its predictions, and as 2015 draws to an end, it warns of a “cold and snowy” winter—which certainly seems like a safe prediction, at least for the northeastern United States. But even so, such predictions are far from precise.

Plug into the weather

In our modern industrial and information age, the importance of weather data has only grown. Because weather affects nearly everything we do, knowing about weather forecasts ahead of time can significantly affect how we live, travel and work. 

Weather can have an impact on whether businesses make—or lose—money. At its worst, it can cause not only flight cancellations and adverse traffic conditions, but also flooded roads, collapsed roofs, huge insurance claims and even death. However, accurately predicting weather events can do much more than keep you dry—it can help you make more informed weather related decisions for your business or even your personal life.

Before the advent of the World Wide Web, people got their weather news by watching television or reading local newspapers. These, at least, could give an indication of local precipitation for the next day, but travelers had to buy USA Today if they wanted even general weather forecasts for other major cities around the country. Finding out the weather in other parts of the country required a call to someone in the area to find out what the nightly news was forecasting—and even the nightly news only predicted the weather a couple days out.

But the Internet has revolutionized the ways that we think about weather. We can now get a weather forecast for just about any place on the planet—up to ten days in advance. What’s more, we can do it from our mobile phone. We can track weather by the hour, following local conditions in the town or city of our choice. Will it be raining at 3:00 PM in Tulsa next Wednesday? No longer must we wait until next week to find out. Pull out your phone and ask it aloud—you’ll get your answer.

Make the weather a business asset

Today, weather is big business—and big data. The Weather Company, for example, provides forecasts for 3 billion locations around the globe based on weather data that changes constantly—another 4 terabytes of data every hour. The Weather Company handles 26 billion weather requests daily, including those made by 40 million mobile phone users. By any measure, weather data has become a very big deal indeed. What’s more, it can now be used in conjunction with critical business data originating from the Internet of Things to inform decisions about how to staff stores, reroute vehicles or shift pricing as forecasts change.

We’ve come a long way from the days when we looked to the morning and evening skies for signs of impending weather. We still try to make informed decisions by understanding the environment around us, but now big data and weather analytics are creating previously unimagined opportunities for businesses and people alike. Whether you’re considering taking an umbrella with you to the park or planning shipping routes for your trucking fleet, having detailed insight into the weather can change your weather related decisions.