FINANCIAL statements are both infrequent and backwards-looking, so getting a sense for how a business is performing in the present can be nearly impossible. But a cottage industry of a few dozen firms, mostly in America, is gleaning “alternative” data from novel sources, ranging from satellite images to obscure corners of social media.

The growth of small, low-cost satellites and machine learning means companies can quickly and cheaply parse millions of satellite images a day. A common trick is to analyse photos of car parks outside big-box retailers such as Walmart to get a sense of daily revenues. A Chicago-based data firm, RS Metrics, sells estimates on the productivity of factories by tracking the number of lorries parked outside. Bad weather can make such analysis difficult in some places, but satellite-image analysis of, say, Elon Musk’s new “gigafactory” making batteries for Tesla’s electric cars in Nevada is more straightforward under the desert’s clear skies.

A bit of ingenuity along with some elementary geometry goes a long way. Data analysts estimate the size of oil stocks by looking at the lengths of...Continue reading