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Insurance Company’s Response To Wildfire Claims Better Due to Technology

In some cases, even before adjusters arrive on scene, claims experts can assess damage from the fires and cut checks by using before-and-after images taken by drones

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California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
Joe Balog, a workforce management director at Travelers, examines weather, social media and other data from recent natural disasters inside the company's catastrophe response command center in Windsor, Connecticut. VOA

As wildfires raged this month in California, insurance claims experts at Travelers sat in a command center 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) away in Connecticut, monitoring screens showing satellite images, photos from airplane flyovers and social media posts describing what was happening on the ground.

Real-time data and technology that were unavailable to property-casualty companies even a few years ago have shaped the industry’s response to the Camp Fire, which has burned nearly 240 square miles (622 square kilometers) in northern California and the 151-square-mile (391-square-kilometer) Woolsey Fire in the Los Angeles area.

By overlaying the data on maps marking its customers’ locations, the company can quickly identify those who are likely to have been affected, said Jim Wucherpfennig, Travelers vice president of claims.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
A controlled burn ignites pine trees on the “Rough Fire” — which closed camps east of Fresno at Hume Lake as it crossed Highway 180 — in the Sequoia National Forest in California, Aug. 21, 2015. VOA

“That allows us to deploy people and resources where they are needed most,” he said.

The same data also can be used to determine risk and pricing for insurance in any given area, said Peter Kochenburger, the deputy director of the University of Connecticut’s insurance law center. Insurers, for example, can use the telemetry to identify local vegetation, wind patterns and fire history. In some cases, it can determine that the owner of one home is more likely to suffer damage than the owner of a neighboring home, he said.

“Does it seem intrusive? It can be,” he said. “They have a lot more information on all of us, on our properties than they had two, five, 10 years ago. That’s a major issue and that’s something regulators are going to have to talk about.”

During the wildfires, Travelers said the information has been used to expedite claims, even in areas that are still inaccessible to inspectors.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
The burned out hulks of cars abandoned by their drivers sit along a road. VOA

Workers were able to see what roads were open and map out spots in Chico and Thousand Oaks to park the RVs that serve as mobile claim centers, the company said. The tools also indicated where customers who evacuated were going to be, Wucherpfennig said.

The glassed-in Travelers National Catastrophe Center is located in Windsor, Connecticut. Modeled after military war rooms, it includes a conference table behind 19 high-definition screens, which display maps, graphs, television images and social media sites, all providing real-time data on the fires.

Also Read: U.S. Officials Find Solutions To Prevent Increased Wildfires

In some cases, even before adjusters arrive on scene, claims experts can assess damage from the fires and cut checks by using before-and-after images taken by drones, aircraft or satellites as well as videos or photos uploaded by customers from their phones. Employees have tools and smart phone apps that can convert those photos into instant measurements, to help quantify the damage.

“We’re able to virtually interact with customers much more easily than we could even in the recent past,” Wucherpfennig said. “We’re also able to monitor all forms of social media in real time. That helps us create an event footprint, which helps us understand how the event is tracking and what type of damages we’re seeing.” (VOA)

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European Union Opening New Front in Its Quest to More Closely Regulate Big Tech Companies

In addition to selling its own products, Amazon also allows third-party retailers to sell their goods through its site

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FILE - Caption European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager addresses a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, Jan.11, 2016, after the EU demanded Monday that Belgium recover millions of euros from 35 large companies in back taxes. VOA

The European Union is opening a new front in its quest to more closely regulate big tech companies, saying Wednesday it was investigating whether U.S. online giant Amazon uses data from independent retailers to gain an illegal edge when selling its own products.

EU antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said she is taking a “very close look at Amazon’s business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer, to assess its compliance with EU competition rules.”

In addition to selling its own products, Amazon also allows third-party retailers to sell their goods through its site. Last year, more than half of the items sold on Amazon worldwide were from third-party sellers.

The EU opened a preliminary probe into the issue last year, and Vestager said it has shown that “Amazon appears to use competitively sensitive information — about marketplace sellers, their products and transactions on the marketplace.” Using the information could give it an unfair competitive edge.

European Union, Technology, Companies
The European Union is opening a new front in its quest to more closely regulate big tech companies, saying Wednesday it was investigating. Pixabay

In a parallel case, Germany’s competition regulator said Wednesday that Amazon was changing some of its business conditions for traders on its online marketplace worldwide after it raised concerns about some terms. The regulator said that the changes affect a range of issues such as a one-sided exemption from liability to Amazon’s benefit as well as the place of jurisdiction for disputes.

Other EU countries like Austria, Luxembourg and Italy are also independently investigating Amazon but EU spokeswoman Lucia Caudet said the national probes did not overlap with the EU investigation.

Amazon said it would cooperate with the EU authorities, according to media reports.

The EU’s investigations into major companies like Amazon have led the way in a global push to more tightly regulate tech giants, as many governments wonder if they are becoming too big for the good of the wider economy.

Also Read- US House Block Administration from Selling Billions of Dollars in Weapons to Saudi Arabia

Among the key questions are not only whether the tech giants abuse their market dominance to choke off competition, potentially stifling choice for consumers, but also whether they are adequately protecting users data and paying their fair share of taxes in countries where they operate.

Tech companies do huge business across Europe but pay taxes only in the EU nation where their local headquarters are based, often a low-tax haven like Luxembourg or the Netherlands. The result is they pay a far lower rate than traditional businesses. France has tried to address the problem by unilaterally imposing a 3% tax on big tech companies’ revenue in the country. The U.S. government is not happy about that and finance ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy countries will discuss the issue this week in Paris.

Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President elect who should take up her role in November, has said she will try to be more vigilant to make sure such companies pay enough taxes.

European Union, Technology, Companies
EU antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said she is taking a “very close look at Amazon’s business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer. Pixabay

Amazon has already been the target of previous EU investigations. Two years ago, officials ordered it to pay $295 million in back taxes to Luxembourg after finding that the company profited from a tax avoidance deal with the tiny European country. EU officials also investigated Amazon’s e-book business.

Also Read- Buzz Aldrin Recalls the First Moments of Apollo 11 Launch

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the House Judiciary Committee is investigating the market power of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Congress is this week holding a two-day hearing on Facebook’s plan to create a digital currency, Libra, which governments in the U.S. and Europe have been skeptical about. (VOA)