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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit