Weather startup Understory helps City of Somerville plan for climate change

Understory's co-founder Bryan Dow during the installation of one of the Somerville weather stations.
Understory's co-founder Bryan Dow during the installation of one of the Somerville weather stations.

When a cold front moved into Somerville the middle of last week, the team at Understory sat by their computer screens, watching it engulf the city in real time. As part of a new partnership with the city, the weather tracking company is looking at Somerville as a giant lab to stress-test its novel design for a local weather monitor.

Just a year ago, Understory raised $1.9 million in funding, changed its name, and moved from Madison, Wis., to Boston to join the Bolt hardware accelerator. It is currently based at the Somerville incubator Greentown Labs, and so this project provides the company with an opportunity to tinker with its new technology in its backyard. For the city, it’s a first shot at gathering high-density weather data that it can put to use during events like snowstorms.

Understory currently has two orb-shaped monitors set up on roofs two miles apart in northwestern and southeastern Somerville. Unlike regular weather monitors, Understory’s network of weather monitors are better at measuring the intensity of events like hailstorms, and can collect and send data more often. The company receives pings from the monitors every second, and when the monitors are in “storm mode” they can collect up to 3,000 data points per second. Understory chief executive Alex Kubicek claims that taken together, the monitors can map precipitation with better resolution, making Understory a “first weather network of its kind.”

2015-04-30 13.34.51With better local data about the pace and kind of snowfall, for example, Somerville would know what kinds of crews and tools to dispatch, said Oliver Sellers-Garcia, the director of sustainability and environment at the City of Somerville. These data are public — residents can see their local weather data on the company’s website.

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A cold front moves into Somerville. Image via Understory.

The company plans to sell the data and analysis to insurance companies that are seeing a spike in claims for weather-related damages. The data would allow them to verify the severity of weather events reported by their customers.

Currently, Understory has pilot tests underway in Kansas City, Mo., where 50 stations are collecting data, and in Dallas, Texas, where 10 stations are in action.

Real-time and historical weather analysis is a first step. Once the company has a higher density of monitors out in the city, it will be possible for them to begin working on weather predictions, Kubicek said.

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One of the new Understory weather stations in Somerville. Image via Understory

In Somerville, the partnership is also expected to help city reach its sustainability goals. “We have some pretty ambitious climate change goals: reducing energy usage and zeroing out our carbon emissions,” said Sellers-Garcia.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone intends for the city to reach a “zero emissions” state by 2050 and Sellers-Garcia said the alliance with Understory is the first of what the city intends to be a series of partnerships with local companies that will help them get there. “It will be a useful snapshot of Somerville,” he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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