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These entrepreneurs are democratizing data to predict flood risks

The co-founder of Cloud to Street discusses the catalyst for her venture and why she organized her venture as a business, not a nonprofit.

The mission of Project Drawdown is to encourage innovations and solutions that can help the world draw down atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases — both by avoiding emissions or sequestering carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere. The coalition includes researchers, scientists, graduate students, business leaders and others dedicated to this cause.

What might these solutions look like? GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing a series of Q&As with entrepreneurial Yale alumni and students working on startups and technologies inspired by the Project Drawdown agenda. Here is one of their stories.

Cloud to Street is a remote-sensing platform that maps floods in near real time. The company brings together satellite imagery, social vulnerability data and computational hydrology to create an integrated assessment of social and physical risk to floods. Founded by Yale School Forestry and Environment Studies graduates Bessie Schwarz (now CEO) and Beth Tellman (chief of science), Cloud to Street is driven by the mission to reduce barriers to scientific data and empower vulnerable communities to prepare and respond to disasters.

As climate change increases the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, communities face a range of public health and economic impacts — including loss of life, infrastructure damage, destruction of crops and food supplies, contamination of drinking water, and increased prevalence and spread of disease. Who is impacted most by these risks is driven by geography, as well as socio-economic factors, with gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, age, health and economic status all playing a major role.

In this interview, founder Bessie Schwarz discusses how Cloud to Street brings together a newfound entrepreneurial agility with her deep roots and passion as a community organizer, to identify and address these inequalities and equip communities around the world with the information they need to adapt and respond to our changing climate.

Mikaela Bradbury: What was the original inspiration behind your business? Was there a key moment that sparked the idea or the desire to tackle the challenge you’re addressing?

Bessie Schwarz: Cloud to Street was formed by me and another Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies student, Beth Tellman. The seed of it comes from our experiences — Beth as a disaster relief worker in El Salvador before she came to Yale to study hydrology, and me as a community organizer all around the United States before I came to Yale to study social science. I was very interested in looking for new solutions to give voice to vulnerable people.

The real "aha" moment was when Beth and I were sitting in Kroon Hall, at the beginning of a spring semester. Google came to present an early version of the platform that we use today called Google Earth Engine, a remote-sensing cloud-processing platform. When Beth and I saw it, we immediately thought about communities in El Salvador that lacked information about disaster risks. We thought if we can use this to get more information about risk to them, it could be a powerful tool for empowering people.

So, she and I started building the algorithm, which we presented in Mountain View, California, that summer.  We then attended a disaster development conference to present a very early version of our work.

At that conference, someone essentially came up to us and said, "The World Bank needs this." There had been a massive flood in Northern India that killed about 6,000 people in 2013, and about a year later they still didn’t have sufficient information about new risk. They asked, "Can you help us?" So, that's the short history. The pivotal moment was when Google came to Yale.

Bradbury: Did you have prior experience with this type of technology?

Schwarz: Yes, definitely. Both Beth and I got really swept up in GIS with this great visiting professor at Yale, Charles Dana Tomlin, and Beth had focused quite a bit on remote sensing with [geography and urban sciences professor] Karen Seto's class.  So yes, we were very taken by spatial analysis, and it accelerated when we started working with Google.

Bradbury: Zooming out a bit, the focus of this series is climate change entrepreneurship. I recently heard the director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air, Climate and Energy Program refer to the words "climate change" as being like the word "stuff" — it's an all-encompassing concept that needs to be broken down its specific parts for people to feel compelled to get involved and know how to address it. What aspect of climate change does your company address, and how are you intervening? 

Schwarz: We are extremely focused on people who are at risk due to flooding and don't have sufficient information about that risk — where the next flood is going to go, how bad it will be — in order to protect themselves, to prepare for the next one, to respond to it and insure their assets.

It's estimated that 250 million people are affected by flooding every year. The number exposed to flooding — both in terms of the people and the GDP — is expected to double by 2030 because of climate change and other global transformation. We see time and time again that there isn't enough information to prepare, even for places in wealthy areas like New York and Houston.

I'm from around New York and when Hurricane Sandy hit, 10,000 of the homes that were flooded were left off the FEMA flood map because the maps were 35 years old. And in Houston, we say that eight out of 10 of the people affected were not on the official flood map. That means people don't get protection, they don't qualify for federal insurance.

And the problem is way, way worse in developing countries, where the damage is bigger and the lack of access to information to prepare for it is much greater. What we are trying to do is reduce the scientific barriers to access to information to prepare for increased flooding hazards. It's one part of creating resilience for vulnerable communities.

We see time and time again that there isn't enough information to prepare, even for places in wealthy areas like New York and Houston.
Bradbury: Can you talk about how you integrate demographic data with the geographical data to determine risk?

Schwarz: What we call social vulnerability is a critical part of how we understand resilience and hazards. I think everyone understands that. Think about the 9th Ward in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or elderly communities dying right next to hospitals in the recent hurricane season.

But what is lacking is actual action that responds to that issue, whether it's government or early responders. Part of the reason is that they don't have actionable data that considers the social dimensions behind a disaster. So, we map which of the communities hit by the same hazard, primarily a flood, are likely to experience loss — loss of livelihood, loss of life or the inability to recover.

We've done this in Northern India, Senegal and New York state. We take these data sets, look through the literature and talk to people to determine which types of conditions have led to loss in the past, and then we run one of a few kinds of statistical models depending on the type of data and the needs locally, coming up with which indicators lead to loss. [We] use that to map the communities in the area, and then we overlay that with hazards.

Bradbury: In terms of how you see your company evolving in the future, are you interested in addressing other types of climate risk in the future — such as heat stress or drought? Is that part of your broader vision to addressing climate risk and vulnerability more broadly?

Schwarz: It definitely is, but we have enough to tackle with flooding for now … it affects more people per GDP that any other hazard and the data gaps around flooding have massive impact. So we have enough to tackle as a company, and as a company we want to be doing one thing really well. We have already started dipping our toes into mudslides, since flooding and mudslides often come together.

Two researchers at Yale helped us do some great work in Uttarakhand [in India] around mudslide vulnerability with machine learning, and we’ve thought about and looked into drought a little bit, and other types of excess rain because some folks have asked us to do that. But I think as a company we want to stay pretty focused. 

Bradbury: So speaking more about your process as an entrepreneur, were there any key challenges or surprises along the way that produced major pivots in your plan?

Schwarz: We incorporated in 2015 but started taking it seriously in the summer of 2016. It has been a real journey in trying to figure out how you build an organization like this. I am a community organizer by training, Beth is a community organizer, and everyone who works with us are primarily scientists. There were no business people among us — really, we were nonprofit at heart.

The key thing is keeping our eye on the prize in what we want to do in the world. We are very focused on helping vulnerable people get access to the data they need to prepare for these hazards. And the injustice of the fact that there is a clear inequity in terms of who has information that they need, who has accountability in the decision making that protects them and who is able to get insurance and other financial products.

So, everything around the theory of change and type of product that leads to that is stuff we don't mind changing or pivoting around, and [choosing to be] a business or a nonprofit has turned out not to be that important to us. What matters is creating the most value for those communities as possible.

So figuring out a business strategy has certainly been interesting and has mostly fallen on me as the CEO. Now I know words like ROI and MVP, but really the hardest thing is having a business that creates a real social purpose, and the key is really staying true to our values and our vision.

Bradbury: Having come from the nonprofit world and being a community organizer, have you developed any ideas on the role of entrepreneurship in addressing climate change, particularly within the ecosystem of public and private partnerships? Do you have any particular thoughts for the potential advantages or disadvantages of tackling these from an entrepreneurial perspective?

Schwarz: We wouldn't continue being a business if we didn't think it was the best way to create scalable change. My theory of corporates and the role of business really shifted during my time at Yale. As a community organizer, I was very skeptical of anything CSR or "business is the solution."

Over the last couple of years, the way we interact with a client, who is mostly a government or insurer, is fundamentally different than when I was at a nonprofit. I have to create value for people or I don't survive. I have to produce something that I know is of use. So, it behooves me to involve them in the process.

Rather than creating a pretty dashboard with real solid science and then two years later showing it to a water agency in Argentina who is trying to reduce risk, and saying, "Check this out," and them going, "This isn't useful," we try to engage people from the beginning. Otherwise, they will just go to someone else.

It's been interesting having a nonprofit theory of change, and sitting in a business and realizing the flexibility and power you have.
Also, we used to try to do everything in terms of our science and impact, but in order to scale we've honed in to a very small thing — which is mapping and monitoring floods around the world and creating risk profiles. That’s a small fraction of the capability of what we can do, but we are really digging into that to make the most impact from it. And I think by doing that, we can help more people by really scaling that.

It's been interesting having a nonprofit theory of change, and sitting in a business and realizing the flexibility and power you have.

At the same time, I think my training as a community organizer, where you are essentially making something out of nothing all through motivating people, has been incredibly useful in building a company. And I think the skills I'm learning and the strategies I'm using in business have been super useful and I think the nonprofit world could benefit from them. I know that's a cliché…

I'm really interested in the role of scale in all this. With both large corporations and nonprofits, I often find that the organization can become so focused on maintaining itself, its own organizational structures, processes or assets, which can blind them to solutions that may threaten these things. There is something about the entrepreneurial phase in particular that offers a kind of agility and independence that allows you to have a paradigm-shifting perspective.

I don't know if it's the role of large organizations to innovate. It's a very big boat, and they can't just turn the entire steering in one direction to go after something that they think is on the horizon. In many ways, the role of these small organizations is to pivot quickly, and frankly, most of them die because of it, but it's a much more natural fit for trying new things and risks.

And we don't necessarily want these large nonprofits to collapse by trying new things, but hopefully they can spin up some of the innovation into these bigger institutions that are just as valuable in a different way. 

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