- Where Insurance & Technology Meet

Fort McMurray, Insurance and Data: Hi-Tech supports Hi-Touch

During the second week in May, I attended a conference focused on the use of data in insurance. What I didn’t realize was that, quite apart from the formal agenda, I was going to learn the value of integrated data and analytic tools in catastrophic situations.

On the banks of the Athabasca

Fort McMurray, a city located in North Eastern Alberta, is best known for being home to people who work in the Athabasca Oil Sands. It has grown substantially since the mid 1970s, when development of the Oil Sands was approved.

The 2015 permanent population of Fort Mac (as it is known) was 78,382 souls (up from 15,424 in 1976), living in 22,386 dwellings, 47.4% of which were single detached houses.

People were working hard, earning good money and investing in homes.

The city is on the bank of the Athabasca River and was surrounded by boreal forest. In early May, that forest became an inferno which triggered a complete evacuation of the city and widespread damage to homes, vehicles, and infrastructure.

The evacuees were spread out, but there was one common element. The residents wanted to get back in to see what was damaged, what could be saved or salvaged, and what needed to be done.

However, the environment was toxic, the infrastructure severely compromised, and security services were not prepared for 80,000 people to reenter a dangerous area without utilities, support, information, and control.

What could be done?

Insurers were queuing up, but they needed data. This is where Opta (and others) came in. Opta is Canadian company which provides insurance companies, brokers, and risk managers with data and analytic tools to help manage risk and assess losses. It maintains large bases of data and has agreements to access others to supply information on demand.

Starting immediately after the fires began to ravage the city, Opta worked with satellite suppliers to get images of areas of the city – before and after. This allowed Opta to apply machine learning techniques to detect changes in roofs to determine damage.


According to Opta, after applying geocodes and addresses, the outcome was a user-friendly portal. “We were able to help carriers domestic and abroad in a way other third-party adjusters couldn’t,” said Opta president Greg McCutcheon. “The information was timely and available.”


This continued for the next week, as more information was added. Authorities continued blocking entry to the area, so insurers were preparing information in anticipation of claims. The Opta team helped there.

“Insurers were pulling information from their systems to send over to us to make sure we could accurately identify their risks, but also help them streamline their processes,” McCutcheon said.  As a result, the carriers were able to make better decisions about setting priorities and mobilizing adjusters.

At the conference, McCutcheon was to give a presentation on data and analytics. He used the majority of his session to describe the operation underway.

What was the result?

Throughout the disaster, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) held frequent media advisory sessions. I had the opportunity to ask Steve Kee, IBC’s Director of Media and Digital Information about the significance of tools such as those used by Opta.

“I think the speed issue will help with evacuees who have damage to their home running out of mass evacuation coverage,” Kee said, adding,  “The photos will help insurers determine if there’s additional coverage under additional living expenses.”

Where to, from here?

There are hundreds of organizations that were, and are, contributing resources and expertise to help in this catastrophe. I am focusing on Opta simply because I got to see their work in real-time.

All front-line and support workers deserve gratitude and recognition. For example, insurers and independent adjusters were anxious to make sure they could triage claims so they could give support to people with no house left. In many instances, if the insurer didn’t get a call from the clients, they reached out to find them in order to deliver the news with compassion.

As I write this, I hear that authorities are opening the area for residents to return. From personal experience, I know it will be very difficult for them. However, the work that we do will help. And advances in technology will allow us to help even more going forward.

These are times when I am very proud to be part of our industry.