‘Why Weather Analytics’ is a monthly series about all of the hackers, entrepreneurs, teachers, tornado-chasers and weatherheads who make up the body of Weather Analytics, how they got here, and why.
Each month we’ll focus on a new employee, their story, and what about Weather Analytics pulled them in. This month we’re featuring open-source hydrology celebrity Laci Videmsky, Product Architect at Weather Analytics, and how his work at the New California Water Atlas informed his jump into the weather-space.
WA- What is the New California Water Atlas?
LV- At its core it is an owners manual for the California water system both natural and man made. It’s inspired by, (the reason why its called The New California Water Atlas) the original California Water Atlas, which was a book. That was a book that came out of the Governor’s Office of Research & Planning, which is a state level office in the executive branch and at the time they were dealing with a pretty serious drought often compared to the one we’re currently having. They thought if they could produce a manual that it could at least educate the public and elevate the conversation around water in California. The history of California water is full of contention, full of myths, and full of conspiracy theory. There’s the classic phrase “If you’re in California, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”
[su_pullquote class= large dark]”If you’re in California, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”” [/su_pullquote]
The idea was “Let’s elevate the conversation by providing very basic information in lay person’s terms about the California water system, both the history and all of the various facets of water.” Whether you’re talking about water quality, water quantity, urban water, agricultural water, species that you find next to water, ground water, surface water, there are so many different areas that one could illustrate and they did it magnificently. The New California Water Atlas is inspired by that first effort.
The organization that I had worked at, which is an environmental nonprofit, did a lot of California related work in water. The founder of that organization, Huey Johnson, was the former Secretary of Resources in California during the administration in 1979. He’d worked on the original California Water Atlas and many of the original authors were still around and are advisers to the new project. The idea is to re-imagine that first work, but on the internet where it is freely available and doesn’t go out of date.
LV- There are only two projects that are online and the idea is that we’ll keep rolling them out one by one. We’re currently working with the Nature Conservancy, which is another large environmental and conservation nonprofit that does work internationally, to rollout the California Fresh Water Species Interactive. We’re also working with volunteers at Code for Sacramento, a Code for America brigade, as well as a Groundwater Interactive.
WA – Are you still currently with the group doing projects?
LV – I’m now in a curatorial role and Eric Theise is working on the project full time. Now that I’m at Weather Analytics I’m happy to be in more of an advisory role.
WA – What can you tell me about the impact that the Atlas has had?
LV – So first of all — we went into the project very naively thinking that we could find information about the California water system in some of the genres that I described or some of the datasets that I mentioned, thinking that we could pull it off.
We were quite surprised at the state of the information and how it is made available. Thankfully, and maybe not coincidentally, some of the original people that began working on it were very involved in the civic hacking movement–groups like Code For America, Open Knowledge Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, these kind of nonprofit groups that were very focused on government transparency and having the government be more responsive for making data open and accessible. When we found how badly the data was made available and how understaffed and underbudgeted the agencies were we were like “Oh great, we know how to do this, lets leave the scene better than we found it.”–
The Atlas, in a funny way became a vehicle to start a conversation about open data in these environmental agencies that manage water. We started with state level but we also collaborated with a handful of utilities which worked more locally, and I have to say it has definitely been a medium through which we’ve been able to advance the discussion about the accessibility and interoperability of data in California and that’s been really exciting. Not only is it this owner’s manual or this growing body of work but it is also the channel through which we could begin those conversations about “How do we get data?” and “Not only how do we get data, but how do we get data in the ways that will enable many other people to make atlases or do their work better?” whether it be with the general public, private sector, or government agencies. Learning about how Weather Analytics is asking these questions about weather data and using it in innovative ways resonated with me even though I’m from the nonprofit side it was all about “How do we create sandboxes to spur innovation?” the whole open data movement is all about “how do get data out there so that more people can be part of the conversation and potentially innovate new solutions?”
[su_pullquote class= dark]”How do we create sandboxes to spur innovation?“[/su_pullquote]
WA – What inspired your move to Weather Analytics?
LV – I’d been watching the weather-space quite closely, and it has a similar startpoint to the work I’d been doing in the water sector in that it uses government datasets and improves on them. I found that particular type of innovation really exciting and really scaleable. I think water and weather are very related and I see a lot of potential crossovers specifically in the utilities space and in the energy space. Water itself has a ways to go. I’m not even necessarily speaking about California; internationally we do a very poor job of tracking water and the data has a ways to go, and the ways we measure water has a ways to go. I will continue to be an advocate, but I think things that are on the periphery of water, things like energy, things like weather and the impacts that they have on how we manage those resources and how utilities manage those resources, are really exciting. Weather Analytics for me was a way to begin advancing the conversation around resource management and various industries that are connected to that.