Smarter phones, smarter weather?

When Apple first released the iPhone, one ad that got a lot of attention — so much of the kind of attention that it’s nowhere to be found on YouTube — was one featuring someone purporting to be an airline pilot.  The pilot says air traffic control told them they can’t take off due to weather at their destination, but thanks to his iPhone, he knew better.  He pulls up the radar for their destination, confirms there’s no bad weather there, and tells ATC, who promptly and without question gives them the go-ahead for takeoff.

iPhone, courtesy of Flickr user Twon

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Twon

Anyone familiar with the inner workings of commercial aviation knows the flaws with that ad, but its nonsense raises an interesting point.  With the explosion in the smartphone industry, a lot of folks are walking around with very powerful and capable computers in their pockets.  The range of applications available is fantastic for experts and enthusiasts alike, as they take a wide range of information and data products and put it all in the hands of, well, experts and enthusiasts alike.

Herein lies a potential problem.  Without getting into the details of the State Fair incident — most of which will only be uncovered by a proper and independent investigation, regardless of the governor’s “fluke” conclusion — this begs the question: Does putting these tools and data in someone’s hands automatically make them credible and qualified to use those tools and interpret those data?  Clearly, the answer to that is “no” — however, there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s exactly what happens anyway.

We know, for example, that people under a threat will seek to confirm or personalize that threat before deciding whether to take protective action.  One way some have done this is, after watching a television meteorologist analyze radar data during a severe weather cut-in, attempting to recreate what they’ve seen on TV.   If they’re successful in this re-creation, that is often “good enough” for confirmation and will open the door toward taking action.

Velocity image showing a potential tornado, courtesy of Flickr user jastrzab

Velocity image showing a potential tornado, courtesy of Flickr user jastrzab

The problem is that radar interpretation is not for the timid.  It’s an area where what you don’t know that you don’t know — akin to Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” — can bite you.  If you have not been trained and don’t know about aliased (or improperly de-aliased) Doppler velocities, for example, you might falsely identify a tornado, or worse, miss or misidentify an actual one.  And radar interpretation doesn’t — and should never — take place in a vacuum.  If you were to correctly identify a fine line from surrounding echoes or clutter, how do you know whether it is a harmless wind shift or the harbinger of strong winds?  Even the best smartphone radar apps don’t provide the necessary environmental context to make that kind of assessment with any kind of certainty.  However, that’s another part of the process that non-meteorologists rarely see or get the opportunity to learn about.

Specifically about the Indiana State Fair incident, colleague Brad Panovich writes:

I love technology and especially my iPhone, but a weather app is not a meteorologist just like WebMD is not a doctor.

I couldn’t agree more.  Weather, like health, is one thing we all have in common.  We’re all subject to it, and nearly all of us talk or complain about it.  Everyone’s got an opinion, and now, everyone can have access to “pro-sumer” and even professional-grade tools, empowering everyone to observe the atmosphere, predict the weather, and get forecasts from the great database in the sky.  But simply having access to the tools of the trade does not make one capable of plying that trade: Training, knowledge, and experience do.  However, that line is being blurred with every new app that’s released.  Unless we as an industry make it clear what value we bring to the table, we will blur that line until everyone’s an expert.

And if everyone’s an expert, no one is.

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About Nate Johnson

Meteorologist, instructor, blogger, and podcaster.
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9 Responses to Smarter phones, smarter weather?

  1. Yes! This is what I said on a FB comment which was discussing Chuck Doswell’s latest post about the event:

    “Another aspect worth considering is how meteorological information is interpreted. This is where the social science aspect plays a huge role, and in these days of mobile phone radar apps, multiple free weather sources, and “customized” forecasts, it is clear that, no matter how good the meteorological information, it may or may not be interpreted properly by the public/users. In fact, given the known facts of this event, it is clear there was quite a bit of “misinterpretation” since the weather warnings and information were relayed in sufficient time for action to be taken by the organizers. It is the whole “Decision Support Services” aspect of meteorology, and it should be a great example to show that the forecast product is NOT the end of the process, but it is actually just the beginning. It also a clear example that, while many private weather organizations may beg to differ, total forecast automation IS NOT an effective means of delivering meteorological information (another rant for another day). My hope is Indy State Fair (and other events similar to this across the country) realize proper planning and coordination with a meteorological expert/analyst is key to proper emergency response should severe weather occur. “

  2. Rob Dale says:

    The Indiana State Fair had a meteorologist on staff. According to Fox59 news this evening, he suggested an evacuation at 8:15pm.

  3. Nate Johnson says:

    RD: That is good to hear, and it sounds like the right advice was out there. That, of course, begs another question: Why did it take so long, and why were people still in harm’s way more than a half an hour later?

    That said, the broader implications of the post remain. If I can get my forecast on my smartphone, why tune in at 6 and 11? Why contract with a meteorologist for my outdoor event when I have the web right here? If we’re not out proving our value every chance we get, we’ll have “empowered” ourselves out of jobs.

  4. Rob Dale says:

    Unfortunately I think the only way we’ll move forward is from legislation. Not that it’s a bad thing – I just wish it would happen otherwise.

  5. Good post DM…. and Rob ….I heard that report as well. If IND state fair has their own private Met and he said to close it down at 815 PM… PLUS the NWS warnings…. placxes the bame clearly on the State Fair folks.

  6. Pingback: @wxbrad Blog » Indiana State Fair incident was no Fluke!

  7. Great piece! Ours is definitely a craft where everyone thinks they are an armchair quarterback meteorologist. I’m not sure what the communication issues were with the Indy Fair…hopefully someone will look at what worked and what didn’t so we can incorporate into future planning.

    In general, I have heard repeatedly from my “non-weather-geek” friends, and have had confirmed through behavioral studies and focus groups, that weather consumers want information. Even though more information isn’t necessarily better, or helping them make a decision, the public still *wants* access to information. Even if they know it’s not necessarily the most accurate forecast (10 day forecasts), or advanced consumers who know they aren’t supposed to make decisions based on it (spaghetti plot hurricane models), they still WANT it, and ask for it, and *will* get it – now with technology allowing the proliferation of information and data.

    The question is, are they making decisions based on the information? The communication and analysis piece is still missing, and as mets, I think that’s where we really prove our value.

  8. Nate, so true about proving your value everyday in everything you do. People ask me why I do so much stuff on-line the simple answer, because it sets me apart from other meteorologists.

  9. Pingback: A Summary of Blogs on the Indiana State Fair Stage Collapse | thecloudonline.net

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