Two companies that use crowdsourcing to provide an alternative to data from traditional weather stations have joined under the same umbrella. Weathernews Inc Japan announced today that it has acquired Boston-based Weathermob for an undisclosed amount.
Weathernews, which is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, claims to be the largest private weather information service company in the world. In Japan, it provides enterprise clients with meteorological data and also makes tools that allow about 20 million amateur weather enthusiasts to share reports and photos. In 2013, it released Sunnycomb, an iOS and Android app that marked its entrance into the U.S.
With its focus on crowdsourced data, including information gathered from smartphones with built-in barometers, Sunnycomb competed with Weathermob’s app, which counts 100,000 monthly active users in 140 countries.
After the acquisition closes, Weathermob chief executive officer Julia LeStage will join Weathernews as chief editorial officer, helping the combined company expand its worldwide operations.
“We were direct competitors in the market and decided to join forces because in the weather world, more data is better data, and the potential of us partnering is better than doing it alone,” said LeStage during a joint interview with Weathernews director Tomohiro Ishibashi.
“In Japan, Weathernews did very well, so everyone there knows the power of crowdsourced weather,” Ishibashi added. “But in the U.S., even though the market is big compared to Japan, people still don’t recognize the power of crowdsourcing, especially in the weather industry.”
The Sunnycomb and Weathermob apps will remain separate for the immediate future, but the two may merge their databases so users of each have access to more information.
Democratizing Weather Data
Weathernews hopes its alliance with Weathermob will help it turn into a “major worldwide weather cooperative” that provides faster data than traditional weather stations.
“We are about the app business in the first stage, but I see weather data as a basic infrastructure for everyone, like water or the Internet or electricity. Our final goal is to make this data open to everyone and easy to use,” says Ishibashi.
LeStage notes that there are currently 29,000 weather stations worldwide, with the majority—about 20,000—located in the U.S. Many are maintained by governments or airports, which means that countries with less developed economies have reduced access to accurate information and are at a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for natural disasters.
While Weathernews also maintains its own traditional weather stations, most of which are in Japan, Ishibashi believes the future of forecasting lies in smartphones equipped with pressure sensors, like the iPhone 6.
“This is very important data for us because if we get data from pressure sensors, then can we can forecast the route of a typhoon or hurricane. A lot of devices now have sensors, in homes, in airplanes, in ships, so we want to gether that data, as much as we can. Even though the accuracy is a bit lower than data from big national weather observation stations, we have quantity and our goal now is to change the quality,” he says.
Unlike some of Sunnycomb and Weathermob’s most engaged users, I’m not a weather geek. I’m usually happy staring out the window to see if it’s raining or checking my iPhone’s Weather app for the week’s forecast. Sunnycomb has proven very useful, however, for travel planning. For example, before a recent trip to Auckland, I was worried because the forecast showed nothing but a line of thunderbolt icons. When I looked at user photos in Sunnycomb, however, I saw that the rain was interspersed with patches of glorious sun and clear skies.
Raising Crowdsourcing’s Profile
While apps like Sunnycomb and Weathermob are useful for consumers, LeStages says Weathernews faces the challenge of convincing meteorologists about the benefits of crowdsourced data.
“Traditonally the weather story has been told by scientists and they are used to getting data from weather stations operated by airports and governments. In the emerging market, they are almost non-existent because weather stations have to be maintained,” she says.
“In my personal opinion, the disconnect is that the smartphone is fundamentally a tech play, so to depend on a new kind of data, I believe, makes many meteorologists nervous because it is new. Weathernews has already changed forecasting in Japan using crowdsourced data, but they are the only ones in the world that have that model.”
As an example of how Weathernews is used by Japanese consumers, Ishibashi points to cherry blossom season, a major tourist event throughout the country. The government relies on temperature forecasts to pinpoint when blossoms will appear each spring, but climate change has made that increasingly difficult.
Weathernews crowdsourcing tools allow users to upload photos, which, when combined with other weather data, make it easier for travelers and venue operators to make plans.
Another hurdle for Weathernews as it expands into the U.S. is the fact that data from the National Weather Service is free and used by over 400 commercial weather companies.
On the other hand, this can be an advantage for Weathernews, because weather agencies need to differentiate instead of using the same forecasts as their competitors. Weathernews’ data can also be valuable for agricultural companies and other organizations whose financial performance is tied directly to the weather, especially if they operate in regions where weather stations are scarce.
For example, in 2013 Monsanto paid an impressive $930 million for weather technology company The Climate Corporation, in part to help it sell corp insurance in Brazil and Argentina.
In the near-term, however, Weathernews’ goal is to grow its app business in the U.S. and pursue strategic partnerships in Europe, the next market it wants to tackle.
“Sunnycomb’s launch was global and it was very focused on the U.S., but our struggle is easy to understand. We didn’t have a good English speaker, so we didn’t know about the culture,” says Ishibashi.
“Now that Julia has joined Weathernews and is chief editorial officer, I believe this partnership will define the missing piece and help us increase engagement for Weathermob and Sunnycomb users.”