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Crowd-sourced weather apps claim accuracy, but keep your eye on the sky

Tim Hornyak | Aug. 31, 2015
Barometer-equipped smartphones are slowly becoming a vast sensor network for weather data.

Crowd-sourcing weather info isn't new, but more and more companies are tapping people power. Last month, U.S. weather news provider AccuWeather launched its first direct consumer crowd-sourcing feature, AccUcast. The service draws on real-time weather and road conditions submitted by users of the AccuWeather iOS app. Users can select from conditions such as "partly cloudy" and road conditions such as "reduced visibility." Each report is represented by a pin on an interactive animated global weather map.  

"We receive and manage more than 12 billion data requests every day," AccuWeather's president of digital media, Steve Smith, said via email. "Our team takes this information and uses a combination of proprietary algorithms, expert system modeling, unique foundational datasets and the experience of more than 100 meteorologists to deliver trusted weather reporting for any location on Earth."

Some experts caution, though, that crowd-sourced weather isn't yet as reliable as it's made out to be. 

"Most of the crowd-sourcing claims are hype with little basis," Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington who has a prominent blog about the weather, said via email.

The exception is pressure readings from phones, said Mass, who coauthored a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society outlining what the coming network of hundreds of millions of smartphones with barometers means for forecasting. 

Already, apps such as WeatherSignal and PressureNet, which can measure barometric pressure, are gaining traction and attracting the attention of meteorologists. 

When acclaimed iOS weather app Dark Sky, which also uses the crowd, announced an update in June, it included support for pressure readings from the iPhone 6, the first Apple phone to pack a barometer. Pressure sensors have been in other smartphones for some time, but the iPhone’s popularity is helping turn mobile devices into a useful sensor network that can help with forecasting.

Dedicated weather stations at fixed locations are another important source of weather data supplied by the crowd, Mass said.

"Smartphones are an excellent delivery tool of weather information, but no one has proved it to be a useful weather observation tool."

 

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