The Future is in Alaska

Todd Foisy has a new title at the National Weather Service Office in Anchorage, Alaska.  We’ve been talking a lot about social media and what role NWS might play in the future.  Todd is clearly helping to lead the charge into a new era and has graciously agreed to share some thoughts.

Those of us in broadcasting should ask ourselves if our companies are making thoughtful strategic moves, or are we leaving the future to others to decide.

One of the mistakes of “old media” has been to under estimate the competition.  The idea that, “we know best and are too big and well established to fail” is very dangerous.  If you underestimate NWS, AccuWeather, The Weather Channel…you might need to turn in your “new media” membership card because you are now “old”.

Special thanks to Todd for giving us his time.

You have a new title.  “Service Delivery Program Manager”, what responsibilities does that include?  Is this now a title at all NWS offices?

As a “Service Delivery Program Manager”, my job is to keep on top of emerging technologies, and help to implement these technologies to better serve the customer.  More specifically, this will involve integrating emerging technologies into internet based technologies and Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  While the exact title of “Service Delivery Program Manager” is unique to the National Weather Service (NWS) Alaska Region Headquarters, many offices in the NWS are headed in this direction.  In the past, the NWS has had a “take it or leave it” and “one size fits all” approach with its products.  Now, thanks to the integration of social science into meteorology, there is the realization of the flaws of this simplistic approach, and more of a focus on the customer.  After all, the perfect forecast or warning means absolutely nothing if people don’t take appropriate action or understand what the forecast or warning means.

The NWS office in Fort Worth just launched a Facebook page.  What type of digital products are you planning/delivering in Alaska?

The primary digital product that the NWS produces is the “grids”, or “graphical forecasts”.  However, the real push in the next few years will be to develop different, more specific ways of looking at the grids to help people make decisions.  Here’s an example.  Our wind grids presently show all the wind speeds and wind magnitudes, N/S/E/W and 0 to 100 knots.  However, a ship’s go/no-go threshold may be 40 knots; in other words, he could care less about the graphical display showing winds every one knot.  We envision an internet interface in which the ship captain sets this threshold of 40 knots, and gets a graphical display with green (go) areas showing winds less than 40 knots, and red (no-go) areas showing winds greater than or equal to 40 knots.  The internet will be able to remember this query in the future.  To add another level, perhaps the captain is using a smart phone app and wants to know when the forecast for a certain latitude/longitude will exceed the 40 knot threshold. He may even be able to tell if the threshold will be exceeded for his present latitude/longitude if there is 3G or 4G coverage available.

NWS Alaska Region is also planning to start with Facebook assuming the Fort Worth test goes well.  Additionally, we are hoping to produce much more multimedia content than is presently available.

As the Weather Service increases the number of products delivered, what type of man power/workflow issues are you facing?

This is a great question.  Because staffing for the National Weather Service is more or less staying the same, we can’t just blindly add products or services without thinking about workload issues.  The real key is being able to leverage technology to work smarter and deliver more products and services without increasing workload.  I believe many additional products/services can be derived straight from the “grids”, or “graphical forecasts”, without extensive forecaster intervention besides producing quality graphical forecasts.

However, there is definitely a move in the NWS to increasingly utilize model data in grid production.  I believe this could be potentially dangerous and is something with which you have to be extremely flexible and careful.  For example, for 95% of the time, the model consensus forecast for temperature may be very accurate, or not worth the forecaster’s time trying to forecast better than it.  However, the other 5% of the time, when temperatures may be around freezing with the threat of a winter storm, a forecaster’s time may be better spent trying to forecast better than the model consensus temperature, because this may mean the difference between a foot of snow and an inch of rain.  Another very dangerous situation you get when the “grids” are totally derived from models is the issue of flip-flopping at the whim of the models.  For example, one model run forecasts 12” of snow, the next run forecasts no snow, then the next run goes back to forecasting 12” of snow.  If the forecaster went straight with the model in this situation, can you imagine how confused the public would be?

On WeatherBrains we have been talking about NWS and social media.  Some say a government agency can never catch up.  Others think the government is certainly slower, more cautious, but could easily become the primary digital distribution source and platform.  Would you share your thoughts?

The NWS has certainly been very cautious so far with social media, at times to the frustration of a lot of people in the organization who genuinely want to engage with the public and provide a great service.  However, social media is not just a fad; it is here to stay as a major method of communication. For the NWS not to be involved in social media would be missing out on an incredible communication and collaboration opportunity.  As a government agency, the NWS constantly has to justify itself to continue obtaining taxpayer money.  We (NWS) can’t justify ourselves if we are not optimally delivering services to our customers.  If social media is the tool by which our customers are obtaining our services, then we must meet this need.

Social media (such as Facebook) will never be, and should not be, the primary method that the public receives weather information.  Imagine every single severe thunderstorm warning coming onto your Facebook Wall during a severe weather outbreak; that’s an overwhelming amount of information.  Instead, most Facebook posts from a forecast office will contain some sort of “teaser”, perhaps a couple sentences about an upcoming winter storm and a graphic of expected impacts.  This would direct the public to an NWS webpage to obtain more detailed information.  In this way, social media would draw in more people.  But primarily, social media is a way of engaging with the public.  In doing so, the NWS can better understand how the public interprets our products/services so we can improve them in the future.  Also, there’s the added benefit of additional real-time weather reports that the public provides when engaging with the NWS on Facebook.

Tell us about forecasting in Alaska?  What are the biggest challenges?  How do you stand the cold?

The biggest challenge to forecasting in Alaska has to be the mere size of the forecast area.  Alaska, which is obviously a colossal state, has only three forecast offices, each with the typical staffing of a lower 48 forecast office.  To compare the size of an Alaskan forecast office to the lower 48, the Anchorage forecast office takes up a polygon with the four corner points being New Orleans, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis.  About 40 different forecast offices cover the same size area in the lower 48.  While it is true that Alaska has a small population, people here spend an inordinate amount of time outside and as such are extremely susceptible to the weather.  So when there’s active weather, which is nearly always, the huge challenge is for the forecaster to be able to focus his efforts on what’s really important.  For example, a low pressure system in the remote Northwest Bering Sea with 80 mph winds may not be as important as a low pressure system with 50 mph winds and freezing spray that is affecting the crabbing grounds around Dutch Harbor.

And how do I stand the cold?  Well, I grew up in Alabama, so you’d think I’d be freezing to death up in Alaska.  However, I’ve found that humans adapt amazingly well to whatever climate they’re in.  The main trick to adapting is to get outside and expose yourself to the conditions, and you will adapt…just don’t put yourself in too much danger doing this.  For example, this summer I left the 65F “heat” in Alaska and went on a business trip to Washington DC when they were having heat indices as warm as 105-110F.  I walked around for a few hours outside, and by then I had adapted and felt perfectly comfortable.

 

Thanks again, Todd.  We’ll have more interviews in the days and weeks ahead.

There is an interesting graphic on the Anchorage NWS website speaking to Todd’s comments about the coverage area in Alaska. Click the image for a larger view.

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About Kevin Selle

Chief Meteorologist, KFDX-TV. Co-host, WeatherBrains.
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One Response to The Future is in Alaska

  1. Pingback: NWS-book | Digital Meteorologist

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