When the clouds thickened over Tina’s Tiara at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival on Thursday, John Randall remained cool, even as the mercury was topping 90.
Sitting in his booth, surrounded by a panoply of whimsical handmade tiaras, Mr. Randall pointed to the Radar Express app on his phone that showed storm clouds and high winds — the bane of vendors at the 10-day festival that ends today, even more than rain — moving well north away from the city.
“All I need is the Doppler [radar] to know when to lower the flaps,” said the Athens, Ohio-based tiara salesman, who is also a licensed pilot. “Just give me a map and I’m good.”
Some of the biggest for-profit weather forecast companies are betting consumers want a lot more than that, however.
Weather apps are blooming on cell phones like cactus flowers after a desert thunderstorm, from big players like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel, to small start-ups with cult followings.
Some come loaded with all sorts of bells and whistles, some attract a geekier demographic, while still others possess a retro simplicity.
Dark Sky, which has something of a cult following, notes only — in black and white — that “in the next hour there will be no precipitation.” (It does have one very cool feature: a globe you can spin on your touch screen, showing you radar all around the world.)
AccuWeather’s mobile app will tell you it’s going to rain over your house in 102 minutes, and its friendly, chatty vibe will tell you if, three days hence, the weather will be delightful or dreary. Yahoo! Weather is visually arresting, showing you high-definition images of Pittsburgh, plus a lovely animated arc of the moon (which, as of Friday, was waning and crescent).
The Weather Channel’s version comes fully loaded: A recent scroll down its main page didn’t show an exact minute count, but it did show you what’s going on RIGHT NOW, then urged you to WATCH NOW a video noting that “Tornado, severe threat heads east.” That was followed by an ad for Father’s Day savings at Lowe’s; hourly predictions; the 10-day; another video (“It Coulld Get Ugly” — their typo, not ours), plus other videos not necessarily related to weather forecasts; more ads; something called “social weather” which tells you what “people near you” are reporting; “Our Favorite Things” — a video about “mind-blowing thrills” at amusement parks — before finally concluding with hurricane forecasts and links.
It’s all part of making weather “a personalized and personable experience,” said The Weather Channel’s Nikki Santoro, vice president of product and design, with a focus on storytelling, which in turn makes the forecast more comprehensible to the user.
Still, how well do weather apps do what serious scientists and meteorologists believe is most important — effectively communicate to people when to take protective action in the event of an extreme weather warning? Is the greenish/yellowish/reddish blob on the radar enough, or the chatty talk of rain at noon? Or is all this precision without accuracy?
There is a website, Forecastadvisor.com, that will tell app users, based on their ZIP code, how accurate the five top weather apps were at predicting the weather in the past month — and the past year. In general, they are wrong about a quarter of the time: In Pittsburgh last month, AccuWeather was the most accurate, at 78.61 percent, whereas The Weather Channel lagged behind at 73.33 percent. The National Weather Service — which provides the vast majority of data that private companies build on — clocked in at 73.03 percent. It doesn’t have an app, though, because, as a government agency, it’s not supposed to compete with for-profit forecasters.
As more people rely on cell phones and apps to get their weather information, however, the National Weather Service is working with social scientists and meteorologists to improve their message — looking at the sources of authority people respond to and how to more effectively communicate in emergency conditions, said Mark Casteel, a psychologist at Penn State’s York campus who studies how people understand what they read. Studies have found, for example, that many app users don’t understand the difference between a “watch” and a “warning,” or the real meaning of the word “significant,” or they might interpret green (for rain) on the radar as a good thing — which it often is if you’re going through a drought, but not always, as Texans will tell you.
Still, “We are the most accurate forecaster out there,” argues Ezra Nanes of AccuWeather, which is based in State College and boasts of providing millions of users with key data based on its own proprietary computer models.
Well, maybe, but there are glitches in communication. On a recent Sunday, AccuWeather’s app predicted that Wednesday would be “sunny and delightful.” By Monday, that had changed to “cloudy and delightful.”
“Well, it depends on what you mean by that word,” said Mr. Nanes. “Your meaning of delight might be different than mine. ‘Delightful’ references how the air feels, not necessarily including sun.”
Asked about this, Bill Syrett, a longtime professor in Penn State’s meteorology program, let out a long sigh.
“The thing that’s lacking in these apps is uncertainty,” he said, noting that it is not really possible to predict where a thunderstorm will go in an hour using projected radar. “Thunderstorms do funky things. They might run into a pocket of dry air or changes in terrain. Anything can happen that these apps can’t predict, but they’ll give you a hard and fast number whether you’re going out in 10 days or an hour from now.”
In an ideal world, there would be no cell phones, Mr. Syrett added. While he loves meteorology, he takes solace in knowing that it is a probabilistic science, with a range of possible outcomes — as opposed to a deterministic science, which is linear. The earth’s atmosphere is more complicated than any weather app will ever be able to comprehend, even as incremental advances in prediction continue and show up on our smartphones.
“Our uncertainty will decrease,” he said. “We’re much better at this than we were five years ago, and we’ll be much better than we were, five years from now. But I’ve always liked it when Mother Nature surprises. There’s something kind of cool about us not being in control of everything.”
Mackenzie Carpenter, email@example.com or 412-263-1949 or Twitter@MackenziePG.