The Innovation Space - Fathom

The Innovation Space - Fathom

In this article, we meet Fathom, formed by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, who build computer models that simulate floods using cutting edge methodology and data.

Tell us about Fathom

Fathom was formed by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol - we were all scientists working in the hydrology research group. Essentially, we build computer models that simulate floods, and these models provide data and information that are useful for a wide variety of people. About five years ago, we decided to start to tackle the problem of providing flood data anywhere in world as at that time it was only available for western countries, at small scales. To do this, we had to overcome all the obstacles standing in our way, such as estimating the size of river channels and the amount of water flowing through them. During that process, we found what we were producing in the form of data and insight was valuable to broader range of interested stakeholders, than originally anticipated, and for different reasons so we formed the company.

When did the company launch?

We launched in 2012 but we didn’t actually operate as a company until 2015. We received grant funding from NERC and Google which enabled us to develop our ideas and solve the problems facing us, which took around two years to complete. We view this as our pre-start up phase and it was fantastic to have the financial backing to work on our ideas before we went operational.

Fathom 1What are the challenges that you're addressing for organisations?

We provide information about flood risk in areas where it had not existed before, basically across the vast majority of world. Put simply, five years ago this level and depth of information did not exist if you can believe it. We produce modelling and data across large scales such as countries and continents with the ability to scale down to specific areas. This is incredibly useful for insurance companies, corporates involved in large-scale risk, and disaster mitigation and response.  What we try to do is to bridge the gap between academia/science and what’s available commercially, to make it quickly available to those who need it.

What are the benefits?

Before we started, there was little information available; even the US was limited to small-scale river reaches. We provide far more comprehensive data across areas previously un-provided for. This allows, for example, insurance companies to analyse and price their portfolios across entire continents.. Our modelling also directly benefits those involved with disaster mitigation and response, risk management and flood risk analysis. By providing analysis at scale and at more comprehensive points, we can actually deliver intelligence for the entire US, for example, aligned with different demographic groups.

Another novel application involves working with conversation agencies, such as the Nature Conservancy in the US, who are interested in repatriating flood plain areas. This means removing levees which can prohibit large areas of the US from being inundated during extreme flood events. Many of these levees systems do not protect urban areas at all, and instead just prevent natural landscapes from flooding. The Nature Conservancy wants to bring these areas back to their natural status with flourishing biodiversity.  We are helping them to identify the impacts of levee removal with our models, by simulating these removals and analysing the impacts of local and regional flooding.

A new discipline for us this summer was in forecasting the impact of hurricanes in terms of disaster response. Hurricane Harvey was a great case in point to demonstrate our capabilities which ended up with Nasa publishing our data on their website. This is something we can see significant benefit for populations across the globe and we will continue to develop our expertise.

There are substantial benefits for those companies who operate large supple chains that span continents. We work with them to manage risk and maintain productivity, particularly where parts and labour are involved, and when they are considering establishing a new base or site, and with their insurance providers.

Who are the organisations you work with?

We work with multiple insurance companies in London, the US and China and large corporates such as Microsoft. Google were partners on our recent scientific paper, and the World Bank is another partner of ours. I’ve already mentioned Nature Conservancy and Nasa, and we also collaborate with Facebook. Specifically, with their Connectivity Lab research team who are mapping global exposure. We are integrating these data with our flood maps to provide information on flood risk with unprecedented accuracy, in rural developing regions.

What is Fathom hoping to achieve in the future?

We want to be the global number one for flood risk information and to bridge the gap between science and the applied world, providing cutting edge methodology and data to a whole variety of people.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Being able to fund a growing team of researchers who are carrying out cutting edge research and making this research rapidly available to lots of people.

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