The Washington Post

For Earth Networks, Hurricane Sandy may have been the perfect storm to track

Mark Hoekzema, director of meteorological operations, and James West, senior meteorologist, are pictured in their office at Earth Networks in Germantown. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

For the Germantown-based Earth Networks, Hurricane Sandy may have been the perfect storm to track.

The company’s network of 8,000 weather sensors and cameras is the largest in the United States, and the biggest cluster of them happens to be located between Washington and Boston.

“We have the most detailed information here in the Northeast and obviously the population density, the density of the power grid ... all meant that our information was critically important to many people,” chief executive Robert Marshall said.

But while the privately held company may have been well positioned to churn out volumes of information about the storm’s trajectory and impact, actually doing so came with a host of logistical hurdles — not the least of which is the fact that the firm’s headquarters was located in its path.

“If we started [preparations] when the storm started, we probably would have collapsed,” said Thomas Spendley, the vice president for engineering.

Earth Networks has spent the past year moving much of its data and technical operations into the cloud, housed off-site in large servers. If power in the office goes out, the data can still flow. If the Web site is swamped with visitors, the capacity can be increased.

Then, nearly a week before Sandy battered the East Coast, meteorologists at Earth Networks developed a plan of action for what weather data indicated could be a historic storm.

“We have staff working around the clock all the time generally supporting clients, but there are additional staff working when we have such a severe weather outbreak like this,” Marshall said.

Eight meteorologists provide twice-a-day updates to companies, sports teams and government agencies that pay for detailed weather briefings. There are content producers feeding data, video and alerts to the company’s WeatherBug Web site and mobile apps.

Spendley said the firm saw Web traffic quadruple early last week as people in the storm’s path flocked there for information. The company’s mobile app, which is more popular on a day-to-day basis, saw less of an increase.

“If you think about mobile, it tends to be very quick information. You’re looking for temperatures or wind speeds,” Spendley said.

“In this case people knew it was raining outside and that it was cold. They were looking for more rich media ... Our Web site does a better job of communicating that rich media.”

The weather business

Governments and businesses, including the National Football League and utility companies, pay Earth Networks for in-depth consultations about pending weather.

“It gets very, very intense and busy around here with a requested conference call every couple of hours,” said Mark Hoekzema, chief meteorologist.

The company’s Web site and mobile apps generate advertising revenue. When traffic spikes, so does income.

“Our advertising for a day like [last] Monday is probably double what it is on a normal day,” Marshall said, “but these events only last for a couple days, so they don’t have a significant impact on the annual revenue of the business.”

Indeed, Marshall said annual revenue projections based on natural disasters, unpredictable as they can be, wouldn’t make for a particularly sound business plan. So they don’t bank on it.

“We have enough experience to tell you it’s quite likely you’ll have a number of major events throughout the year,” he said.

“As the climate changes, the frequency and intensity of these severe weather events is increasing,” he added. “That general trend is something we see and it just means the product and services we deliver are going to be in greater [demand].”

Yet, Earth Networks may see long-term benefits to its business from Hurricane Sandy. When new users flock to the Web site or follow Earth Networks on Twitter, those consumers may come back again — brewing disaster or not.

Figures from ComScore, a Reston-based company that monitors Internet traffic, show WeatherBug attracted 15.1 million users in September. That puts it at a distant second to The Weather Channel’s 46.6 million Web visitors.

“We have so many people who tune in on a day like [last] Monday that so long as we deliver a good experience ... then it’s a big win for our brand.” Marshall said.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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