Partnering for Change
Climate risk is destroying lives, uprooting families, and causing trillions of dollars in damage. The toll that these events take on communities is heartbreaking. Each day, ZestyAI helps insurers communicate the risk of wildfire to their customers, but with such vast amounts of impactful data, we often wonder whether we can do more.
In early 2023, ZestyAI was planning its annual offsite when the opportunity arose to partner with SBP. SBP is a nonprofit organization, founded after Hurricane Katrina, that helps communities prepare for and recover faster after disasters. Since its founding in 2006, SBP has rebuilt homes for more than 2,300 families with the help of 130,000 volunteers in 13 communities across the U.S. and in the Bahamas.
While SBP had not previously worked with wildfire, they have an intense interest in preventing all kinds of disasters. They believe that while we can't stop natural disasters from happening, we can prevent some of the suffering they cause. They do this by preparing people before a disaster occurs, increasing resilience, and streamlining the disaster recovery process. SBP's work is essential both for the prevention and recovery from natural disasters.
During ZestyAI’s 2023 offsite, the entirety of our team — from machine learning to sales — turned their attention to how our data can be used to power an entirely new form of community-based wildfire mitigation. The team analyzed community-level data to pinpoint Western US communities with the greatest wildfire risk and vulnerability. Based on factors like Z-FIRE neighborhood scores, income per capita, population density, and various social disadvantage ratings and tools, we identified three highly vulnerable communities - Clearlake, CA, Palermo, CA, and Heber-Overgaard, AZ.
Teams identified the specific properties within those communities that are most susceptible to wildfire destruction and determined how various mitigation measures could reduce risk. The projected impact was astounding. ZestyAI estimated that with the proper mitigation measures, the average structure destruction rate risk could be reduced by 43 percent, the average homeowner insurance premium rate would reduce by 8.54 percent, and the communities could avoid $164 million in rebuilding costs alone.
ZestyAI estimated that the average structure destruction rate risk could be reduced by 43 percent, the average homeowner insurance premium rate would reduce by 8.54 percent, and the communities could avoid $164 million in rebuilding costs alone.
The Mitigation Gap
Energized by the success of the hackathon, both ZestyAI and SBP were eager to continue our work and bring the project to reality. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for the most vulnerable communities to get money for protection against disasters. This problem is particularly true for poor communities, rural areas, and communities with high social vulnerability, which often don't have the resources or ability to prevent or recover from disasters.
Many disadvantaged communities don’t have the resources to apply for grants or manage the use of grant funds, which leads to unfair access to the federal funding meant to help communities be more resilient. Funding usually goes to bigger, wealthier cities and urban areas, widening the mitigation gap between wealthy and low-income areas.
Funding usually goes to bigger cities and urban areas, widening the mitigation gap between wealthy and low-income areas.
This problem is one that SBP has grown familiar with over the years. Many communities that are heavily impacted by hurricanes suffer from the same problem as the communities impacted by wildfire — they simply need help accessing the resources that are available and managing the projects to use those funds.
A Win for High-Risk, High-Need Communities
While identifying mitigation strategies and communities that need the most help is important, without some amount of funding to get started, projects like this are difficult to get off the ground. However, reducing risk to property and livelihoods is a common goal between insurers, property owners, and non-profit organizations like SBP.
This year, insurance industry giants, CSAA and Aon, partnered with IDEO to create the Climate Resiliency Challenge, a call for bold, innovative solutions to build climate resilience. Winning proposals in the challenge would receive funding to get started.
SBP submitted a plan, “Data and equity: Using AI to decrease risk and increase insurability in high risk, high need communities”, based on data and mitigation strategies from the hackathon. Within weeks of the submission, SBP was awarded the funding needed to act on this life-changing proposal.
Within weeks of the submission, SBP was awarded the funding needed to act on this life-changing proposal.
SBP and ZestyAI will continue to work closely as the mitigation program comes to life. Bringing together a team of experts, including engineers, data scientists, and consultants, ZestyAI's support team will analyze data to ensure that the project benefits the community by pinpointing properties that will see the most risk reduction from mitigation efforts.
This approach aims to transform the narrative of wildfire risk in vulnerable communities by implementing targeted mitigation measures, based on science, to identify areas and homes at the highest risk. By strategically directing funds where they can make the most profound impact, we can bring communities together to protect households and preempt damage, and turn the tide in favor of these communities and people who live there.