Agriculture companies are turning to big data to profit from climate change

Monsanto has made its first acquisition of big data technology with the purchase of Climate Corporation.

The Conversation

This is a guest post by Jo Bates of University of Sheffield, republished from The Conversation

The recent news of Monsanto’s US$930m acquisition of data science company Climate Corporation, raises important questions about the economies developing in response to climate change.

A new generation of companies have emerged that harness new methods of data analysis to turn vast datasets (“big data”) into exploitable, marketable information. As the Financial Times reported, Monsanto’s purchase signals the first significant “big data” acquisition.

Climate Corporation offers an online self-service weather insurance for US farmers. In addition to the company’s standard crop insurance, this Total Weather Insurance pays out solely on the basis of observed weather conditions, rather than crop damage. If the observed weather conditions trigger a pay-out, a cheque is automatically generated and arrives within days of the end of the policy coverage period.

In order to calculate the price of policies and pay-outs, Climate Corporation data scientists analyse three million new data points a day from 22 datasets using advanced analysis techniques. The data comes from a range of third-party providers such as the US National Weather Service, which publishes its data free for re-use.

Old dog, new tricks
Total Weather Insurance is a new form of financial product being sold direct to farmers, but what underlies it is not new. Weather derivatives were developed by the likes of Enron, Koch Industries and Aquila in the mid-1990s. Enron found insurance companies were unwilling to insure against non-extreme weather events, so the company created its own, which worked in a similar way to Total Weather Insurance, paying out if certain conditions are met, regardless of any actual loss. By presenting it as a derivative, and therefore a financial product rather than an insurance product, Enron could skirt the regulatory constraints placed on energy companies’ use of insurance products.

Weather derivative contracts can be traded across any type of weather, the most popular by far are based on the divergence of the average daily temperature from 18 degrees. These products are known as Heating and Cooling Degree Days contracts. The mid-2000s saw massive growth in the weather derivatives market, but it crashed alongside everything else in 2008.

However, the Weather Risk Management Association is hopeful for weather derivatives, pointing to continuing growth outside the US markets throughout the downturn, growing interest in non-temperature-related weather derivatives, and increasing interest from outside the energy industry.

Free the data
Until recently, UK traders had to purchase weather data from the Met Office in order to conduct forecast analyses and price weather derivatives contracts. The financial services sector has long complained that the weather risk and derivatives markets in the UK have been restrained by the lack of freely available weather data, and accordingly have lobbied for a data access and re-use policy similar to the USA. In 2011, the new coalition government obliged, announcing that, as part of its Open Government Data initiative, “the largest volume of high quality weather data and information made available by a national meteorological organisation anywhere in the world” would be opened for anyone to re-use without charge.

The entrance of Monsanto into the weather risk market represents the growing interest in these products outside of the energy sector – in this case agriculture. The combination of increasing amounts of freely available and re-usable weather data, the development of more advanced big data analysis techniques, the growing global demand for a variety of weather products, and the development of simple online self-service portals for buyers all suggest that the exploitation of unstable weather systems is still in its early days.

Big players, big risks
Crucially, these developments expand the range of players with a financial interest in continuing climate instability. Whilst the claim is often made that weather derivatives and similar products balance out the financial impact of weather on affected businesses, thus smoothing adaptation to climate change, serious political-economic questions do arise about who actually benefits from these financial products.

The model of paying out based upon observed weather means, in effect, placing bets on future weather conditions – rather than a business insuring itself against a specific loss. Clearly, during a time of instability in global weather, there is a lot of potential profit to be generated from such financial products. The emergence of this developing data-driven weather derivatives and risk market is, therefore, troubling.

It exploits common threats in order to generate private wealth and favours those in a financial position to protect their interests at the expense of those most vulnerable to climate instabilities. Most dangerously, this practice could reduce the incentive for those profiting from these markets to engage in action to mitigate climate change.

Jo Bates does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Droughts and floods may be exploited by some. (Photo: Getty)
Lecturer in Information Studies and Society at University of Sheffield.
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The Land Registry sale puts a quick buck before common sense

Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, property scandals would be much harder to uncover.

Britain’s family silver is all but gone. Sale after sale since the 1970s has stripped the cupboards bare: our only assets remaining are those either deemed to be worth next to nothing, or significantly contribute to the Treasury’s coffers.

A perfect example of the latter is the Land Registry, which ensures we’re able to seamlessly buy and sell property.

This week we learned that London’s St Georges Wharf tower is both underoccupied and largely owned offshore  - an embodiment of the UK’s current housing crisis. Without a publicly-owned Land Registry, this sort of scandal would be much harder to uncover.

On top of its vital public function, it makes the Treasury money: a not-insignificant £36.7m profit in 2014/15.

And yet the government is trying to push through the sale of this valuable asset, closing a consultation on its proposal this week.

As recently as 2014 its sale was blocked by then business secretary Vince Cable. But this time Sajid Javid’s support for private markets means any opposition must come from elsewhere.

And luckily it has: a petition has gathered over 300,000 signatures online and a number of organisations have come out publically against the sale. Voices from the Competition and Markets Authority to the Law Society, as well as unions, We Own It, and my organisation the New Economics Foundation are all united.

What’s united us? A strong and clear case that the sale of the Land Registry makes no sense.

It makes a steady profit and has large cash reserves. It has a dedicated workforce that are modernising the organisation and becoming more efficient, cutting fees by 50 per cent while still delivering a healthy profit. It’s already made efforts to make more data publically available and digitize the physical titles.

Selling it would make a quick buck. But our latest report for We Own It showed that the government would be losing money in just 25 years, based on professional valuations and analysis of past profitability.

And this privatisation is different to past ones, such as British Airways or Telecoms giants BT and Cable and Wireless. Using the Land Registry is not like using a normal service: you can’t choose which Land Registry to use, you use the one and only and pay the list price every time that any title to a property is transacted.

So the Land Registry is a natural monopoly and, as goes the Competition and Market Authority’s main argument, these kinds of services should be publically owned. Handing a monopoly over to a private company in search of profit risks harming consumers – the new owners may simply charge a higher price for the service, or in this case put the data, the Land Registry’s most valuable asset, behind a paywall.

The Law Society says that the Land Registry plays a central role in ensuring property rights in England and Wales, and so we need to ensure that it maintains its integrity and is free from any conflict of interest.

Recent surveys have shown that levels of satisfaction with the service are extremely high. But many of the professional bodies representing those who rely on it, such as the Law Society and estate agents, are extremely sceptical as to whether this trust could be maintained if the institution is sold off.

A sale would be symbolic of the ideological nature of the proposal. Looked at from every angle the sale makes no sense – unless you believe that the state shouldn’t own anything. Seen through this prism and the eyes of those in the Treasury, all the Land Registry amounts to is £1bn that could be used to help close the £72bn deficit before the next election.

In reality it’s worth so much more. It should stay free, open and publically owned.

Duncan McCann is a researcher at the New Economics Foundation