An extreme weather event like a tornado or earthquake is incredibly dangerous anywhere, but it can be particularly devastating for those in developing nations — where there are few infrastructural resources to protect the community during the event, but also less warning beforehand. The Weather Company, the Atlanta-based meteorological giant, has used the technological know-how of parent company IBM to introduce a new feature, specifically geared towards users in developing countries, to solve this problem.
A new update on The Weather Company’s Android app in developing markets will roll out next week (starting first in India on Tuesday and extending to 42 countries), which will allow users to receive notifications about potential severe weather events, even without being connected to a cellular network or a strong internet connection.
The technology that allows this to happen is called Mesh Networking, and it works by using a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to link nearby smartphones (within a few hundred feet) to essentially extend those phones’ signals. This is a major benefit in an area where many residents might have unpredictable service or poor connectivity. In comparison to creating a hotspot, a mesh network does not use extensive phone battery power.
“This is the same trusted Weather Company alerts, but going through this mesh network system to get to users,” says Chris Huff, vice president of mobile and consumer app development at The Weather Company
Another use case of the mesh network is for users on fixed data plans, a common occurrence in developing countries. Huff says 200 million people in India, the first mesh networks market, are on a fixed data plan. It is estimated that for up to eight days a month, this segment of the population runs out of data. With the mesh network, they still will be able to receive weather alerts and notifications.
Huff said they are ensuring security by requiring any notifications passed through the mesh network to go through The Weather Company encryption. IBM research, technology, and resources were critical to the speed and efficiency to which the feature was brought to market.
The Weather Company is piloting the app in these developing markets before bringing it to other markets, such as the U.S. However, Huff said they will continue to test the possibilities of the mesh network technology for different use cases within their app, which is the most-downloaded weather app in the world.
Though it’s only currently available for Android, the dominant operating system within developing countries, he also said they are working with Apple to see it optimized eventually for iOS. Huff says in the future they hope to open the technology up to developers to see how it could be used in additional contexts.
For now, Huff says the team is focused on rolling out mesh networks to those users in less-stable areas who really need the latest technology to remain safe and healthy.
“Both IBM and The Weather Company have a mission to help the planet,” says Huff. “We want to build a safer planet and propel the world, which is very similar to IBM’s mission. It was like speed dating [when we were acquired], where you meet and you’re like- wow, we have this in common. There’s a real commitment to not let this technology advancement bypass certain countries.”