Bessie Schwarz

Bessie Schwarz

“My eyes opened to this profound thing that is the natural world. Even if we hold it as precious, you can’t just appreciate it. Valuable things are not necessarily guaranteed; they’re often threatened. Seeing the environmental degradation all around me, I realized that we have to fight for things we love.”

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Bessie is a climate change organizer turned policy wonk, turned scientist/activist, who has at last joined her adjacent passions. As the CEO and co-founder of Cloud to Street, which she describes as “a global tool for governments and insurers to monitor floods around the world in near real-time and analyze local flood risk at a click of a button,” she stands at the intersection of both environmental science and community empowerment.

Bessie is also the senior advisor for strategy for the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, (or “YP Triple C”) a Draper Richard Kaplan entrepreneur, and — with her co-founder Beth Tellman, a 2016 Echoing Green Fellow. You can connect with Bessie via Twitter and via email.

What Does She Do?

“We automatically harness tons of satellites and figure out the history of flooding where you are. If you want it updated, just press “run.”’

After Hurricane Sandy, some 10,000 homes in the New York City area were destroyed — without having appeared on any FEMA flood maps, making insurance settlements and rebuilding almost impossible. Indeed, these maps were 35 years out of date. Now, imagine the state of play in developing countries, among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Cloud to Street estimates that 250 million people are annually affected by floods, a number that will double by 2030. Its mission is to understand local risk in new (heretofore unmapped) corners of the world by using global satellites to monitor floods around the world in near real-time and then analyze trillions of data points. In this way, it hopes to build climate resilience and ultimately create a safety net for the 90% of victims who are typically uninsured.

Before Cloud to Street this was the status quo:

“To do a flood map for, let’s say NYC or the state of Uttarakhand in India, you would hire a traditional hydrology firm, which would put equipment in place, placing sensors in the watershed. They’d gather data, design a model that simulates water flowing over your watershed. You would need to license a proprietary model from another firm. At that point, you’d have a really good estimate of flood mapping. This would take two years and could cost a few million dollars.”

Cloud to Street’s dashboard enables governments to do the planning, build search-and-rescue tools, while enabling emergency aid relief. As its CEO and co-founder, Bessie is building Cloud to Street to scale its flood monitoring solution globally.

How Did She Get Into This Work?

It was a walk in the woods that sparked Bessie’s lifelong commitment to the environment.

“When I was 15, I did a seven-week long hiking trip across the Appalachian Trail in Maine.” When Bessie returned to her home in suburban New Jersey she saw it, as if for the first time.

“My eyes opened to this profound thing that is the natural world. Even if we hold it as precious, you can’t just appreciate it. Valuable things are not necessarily guaranteed; they’re often threatened. Seeing the environmental degradation all around me, I realized that we have to fight for things we love.”

From this point on Bessie was dedicated to environmental protection, with the full blessing of her “ex-hippie” parents. Although she didn’t identify as such, she later realized that she had been an organizer and that’s who she is at heart. At Carlton she shifted her course of study from science to politics and policy, later working with at-risk communities in Florida and the Midwest as part of her work as a field organizer with Green Corps. While Bessie enjoyed the work, she “felt that [she] didn’t have the tools to scale the work that good organizers needed.” She decided to return to academia, attending Yale’s Master’s program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where the toolkit that she hoped to develop was informed by the study of both climate change psychology and spatial analysis.

This is not to say that Bessie found her graduate program perfectly aligned with her worldview: “My experience was fraught because it was singularly focused on a capitalist theory of change, not a community empowerment theory of change. But I was then much more extreme in my views then — for good and bad — and now that I run a company I see that working with business can be a productive avenue to scale environmental impact.” [Note: Cloud to Street is a Benefit Corp. Bessie indicated that this tax status “has teeth”: “It enabled us to fight investors who wanted us to work in the U.S., as opposed to developing countries.] 

Bessie was prepared to launch a consultancy focusing on climate change communication, (broadly, looking at America’s relationship to climate change) but her good friend and future co-founder Beth Tellman found herself in El Salvador as part of her Fulbright, landing within two weeks of Hurricane Ida hitting and destroying much of the country. Beth scrapped her original project, crashing a U.N. conference on planning and distribution to find that the areas she was most focused on were not “on the list” of areas to receive aid. Beth formed an NGO, ultimately helping three communities, but wanted to scale.

During the summer of 2014 Google came to Yale to promote a new remote-sensing platform. Both Bessie and Beth immediately grasped how it might be deployed for climate mapping. For the next two years, Bessie continued to focus on her work at Yale, studying public opinion and persuasion. The summer of 2016 was a turning point when Cloud to Street became a supported project by Echoing Green – causing Bessie to commit 100% of her focus.

What Project Is She Working On?

Cloud to Street is currently in the midst of providing flood mapping services for the Nile:
“We actually know more about the flood patterns of the Nile from a 1,000 years ago than today. We’re working with a transboundary agency that provides information to governments. Coming out of that we’ll hopefully offer a robust monitoring system for the whole region. We expect this to expand to nine or so countries, affecting tens of millions.”

The second focus of Cloud to Street is micro-insurance. “Our goal within the next five years is to get ten million people protected under an insurance or some other new safety net within their countries, given that by 2030 the number of people at risk will double.”

Finally, Cloud to Street will shortly be publishing a paper looking at how vulnerable communities across the U.S. would be most affected by a 500-year flood.

How Did She Come to Civic Hall?

Civic Hall Labs alum Greg Bloom, founder of OpenReferral, asked a friend in the environmental space who was preparing for climate change-associated crises. He recalls, “Sadly, he only had one answer; happily, it was Bessie.”

What Is Her Ask of Civic Hall?

Apart from asserting a need for “constant cups of coffee, high fives and constructive commiserating,” Bessie is keen to connect with many of our members who work internationally (such as FrontlineSMS, Global Americans, and rhize) and is especially interested in finding members in the community who have expertise with micro-insurance in one or more of the countries that work in.

While Cloud to Street is currently hiring remote sensing analysts and scientists, Bessie adds “soon we’ll we need to hire a Chief Operating Officer or a biz dev person. Maybe in a month or so.” So, do reach out.