With most of us carrying pocket-sized supercomputers (which also happen to have GPS, cameras, and phones built in) we’re all getting good at just popping open an app when we need to know something. Yeah, we all hear cautionary tales from time to time reminding us to take anything on the internet with a grain of salt. But how many of us understand the accuracy and quality of the data being given to us on our dedicated apps?
That became crystal clear today.
There were widely scattered showers in the area, the tail end of something out over the Four Corners area. We never got a drop in our neighborhood. However, a few days ago there were some disastrous mud slides which resulted in key highways still being closed five days later, dozens and hundreds of cars and trucks trapped and destroyed. This may well be a “warning shot” given the record El Niño which is developing in the Pacific Ocean and the region being at the tail end of a historic, four-year drought.
About 16:15 I was out with Jessie. There were some very pretty, threatening clouds overhead, but off to the east, toward downtown Los Angeles, a couple of HUGE thunderheads could be seen.
At 16:30, this popped up on The Weather Channel website. Notice the phrasing – “At 426 PM PDT…Doppler radar and automated rain gauges indicated heavy rain which will cause urban and small stream flooding,” and “…locations…include Long Beach, Downtown Los Angeles…Boyle Heights.”
Nothing saying this rain might be coming or that flooding was possible. The rain was happening now, observed on radar and other equipment, and flooding will happen in a specific set of places.
So I hit the icon on that Weather Channel website to look at the local radar and see where those big storms were. Were they moving my way? Should I have cleaned out those gutters yesterday instead of putting it off?
Wait – this radar picture was supposed to be from 16:28, when the alert at 16:26 said those big storms were over downtown LA and those other cities. Where are those storms on this map? (Yes, I double checked the settings to make sure the radar layer was enabled. Plus, if you zoomed out to see all the way from San Francisco to Albuquerque, you could clearly see storms out over the Colorado River into Arizona and Nevada.)
At 17:00 we turned on the television to watch the baseball game but instead saw this “BREAKING NEWS!” A helicopter over Boyle Heights (remember Boyle Heights? the NWS said there might be urban flooding in Boyle Heights) is showing water a couple of feet deep running through the streets and into yards.
It would sure appear that those big storms really, really were in the area. So why don’t they show up on the radar map that’s supposed to be a key tool for me to use to stay informed and prepared?
Okay, maybe it’s just the Weather Channel website that’s wonky. Let’s check their iPhone app.
Nope. Not a single drop of rain shown on the radar map for the Weather Channel app, despite the “BREAKING NEWS!” from the Downtown LA area. (Good thing they let me know that I could get “surprisingly accurate horoscopes” through their site. Couldn’t be any worse than the data coming off of their radar maps.)
With the Weather Channel’s data now suspect, let’s look for another source. In a major media market like Los Angeles, every single television station has their own news, weather, traffic, and sports app. Every station will tell you theirs is the best, the most accurate, the fastest with breaking news, and so on. Some stations even have their own Doppler radar setups so they don’t have to rely on the National Weather Service – they would like you to believe this makes them faster, better, and able to give you instantaneous data for your neighborhood, not just the whole region on average. (Honest, the “in your neighborhood” advertising bit is universal here.)
Um…not so much. Channel KNBC’s map shows the alert for the flash flood warning, but shows no rain in the area as of 17:05. Good to know about “Grimm” coming back. Maybe some wereduck from the show could talk to the psychic on the Weather Channel’s site and find the missing radar data.
Channel 7 KABC’s map also shows nothing as of 17:11. This is “surprising” given their investment in the “MEGA Doppler 7000” system, don’t you think? (This is my “surprised” face!)
Channel 2 KCBS’s has three different apps loaded on my phone, but I couldn’t get any of them to run or load. Not a good sign.
But they’re still covering the “BREAKING NEWS!” in their 17:00 news broadcast. A quick check shows that at least their broadcast radar is showing something more closely related to reality.
Being a pilot, I know of other resources that the average person might not be aware of. This is from an app called Hi-Def Radar. The 17:05 radar map here actually shows something that looks like it might be accurate. Good to know if you’re flying!
What if this had been an actual emergency? What if I lived somewhere where those nasty, dark, green blobs weren’t thirty miles away but were instead two miles out and heading straight toward me? The local televisions stations and even the (formerly) legendary Weather Channel might be serving up a lot more marketing hoopla than they are actual cold, hard data.
What about Twitter? It’s not just for following gossip and celebrities, or even space programs, scientists, and authors. I follow a couple of earthquake monitoring bots since they give me almost instantaneous notice of any and all shakers in the area. I also follow the local National Weather Service for days like today.
Oh, my! Look at that! Accurate and timely data, straight from the horses’s mouth (such as it is). I think we have a winner!
Here’s my point – don’t assume that you’re getting accurate and timely data just because it’s coming from an app or website from a big name media-related site!
If you get data though an app, whether it be weather data, driving instructions, turn-by-turn directions, stock and financial data, or anything else, it’s YOUR responsibility to have a good idea about the quality of the data you’re getting. If it’s something where you’re betting your ass on the accuracy of the data, you need to double check your sources in advance so that when you need data instantaneously, you know which sources you can trust and which are less reliable.
I have other examples which I’ll get a chance to document sooner or later, but this is an excellent case study that popped up today. Your mileage may vary, but if you’re in Los Angeles, today’s example shows the weather and radar data on the apps from the Weather Channel and the local television stations are highly questionable. If you want immediate and accurate information about weather hazards (maybe you were one of the hundreds of folks caught in a mudslide last week?) you should be getting your data and radar maps directly from the National Weather Service.
I don’t care if Dallas Rains has a Doppler 7000. His station’s app is useless.
(Yes, there really is a prominent weather guy in LA television named Dallas Rains. Couldn’t make that up.)