Weather apps: Cool and clear (but rather windy in places)
The British obsession with the weather means there are now hundreds of apps that promise to deliver the forecast straight to our phones. But how many are just hot air?
Monday 27 December 2010
I always find it tricky to attribute quotes accurately, but I think it was my mother who said to me during my childhood: "Ooh, turned out nice again." And, for that matter: "Looks like rain." Repeatedly.
To say that the British are obsessed with the weather is an understatement; our highly changeable climate makes us acutely sensitive to its capricious whims, in a way that someone living in the Mojave desert or the Siberian tundra would find laughable. The worse the weather gets, the more excitable we become – and it's precisely this childlike fascination that's catered for by a brow-furrowing glut of weather-related apps for modern smartphones.
The Apple store contains no less than 643 paid apps and 396 free ones in its "weather" section, while Google's Android platform returns 1,434 results when you search for "weather". We can download and launch these apps within ten seconds and check what they might have to say about tomorrow afternoon's conditions, but when forecasts turn out to be inaccurate people vent untold fury in the reviews section of the store they bought the app from.
"It has never, ever predicted the weather correctly," says one. "It is always wrong, it's worse than the TV," complains another. "It says 'Sunny 22C', but it's February. Useless." Weather forecasting, as we're only too aware, is not an exact science, but who actually makes these apps? Their function might well be to offer convenience over accuracy, but what's the point of a weather forecast that's plain wrong?
Last week I checked a dozen apps for their guesses as to the state of my local weather for the following Tuesday, and they displayed a varied set of results. Weather Pro was the most optimistic (2C, 20 per cent chance of rain) while Weather Bug made me once again consider taking out boiler insurance (-2C, 90 per cent chance of snow).
The rest hovered in the middle ground, foreseeing anything from hazy sunshine to light snow showers. Essentially, I was none the wiser, and had no real inkling which one to trust.
"Their accuracy depends on the data feeds they're based on," says Duncan Geere, senior writer for Wired.co.uk and a meteorological boffin. "In the UK the most accurate data is collected by the Met Office, which might then be turned into a forecast by another body, and then sometimes delivered to the consumer by a third. The turning of the data into the forecast is where it often goes wrong, because the standard of interpretation may not be as high at some forecasting companies as it is at, say, the BBC or the Met Office.."
A spokesperson at the Met Office stresses the importance of local knowledge in delivering accurate forecasts. "Most apps use what we'd call direct model output, which is basically what comes out of the supercomputer – be it in America, Germany, Japan or the UK," she says. "But the forecasts you see on British television take that data and fine-tune it. Trained British forecasters can add a level of detail that your average app can't provide."
The Met Office's own weather app was launched back in February – British data for British forecasts for British residents – and has proved hugely popular. While its competitors incorporate bells and whistles to lure customers, the Met Office keep theirs comparatively simple, with the same information you'd get from their website, but in your pocket. Notably, they stick to five-day forecasts, while alternative apps tend to offer longer outlooks; the Met Office line is that once you get beyond five days, the chaos within the atmosphere means that dispensing accurate information becomes even more tricky than it is already.
Some apps persist in trying, however. MetCheck – who currently don't offer an app – are well known for for their attempts to forecast the weather for rock festivals a month in advance, but this pales in comparison to 360-day forecasting apps that offer vague advice about the state of the weather next December.
Other ruses to get us downloading apps include video bulletins, radar maps and material that strays into the questionable; one app called "Real Weather Girls" is a cross between a girlfriend simulator and Michael Fish. Forecasts are delivered alongside a video of your choice of nubile lovely chatting inconsequentially about her day. "Eye candy with 60 per cent accuracy will always sell better than no eye candy with 90 per cent accuracy," says Geere.
The one crucial detail missing from British TV and radio forecasts that apps could easily provide – and, indeed, some have started to – is the percentage chance of rain or snow. "Most meteorologists hate the fact that forecasts are delivered in such a black and white way," says Geere. "People are told that it will rain, not that there's a 60 per cent chance of it raining, which is why forecasters tend to get so much stick."
The Met Office, who have done an "awful lot" of research into the value of presenting the public with the odds of it actually raining or snowing, choose not to include this information in their app; those hungry for such information could head to the Invent section of the Met Office website, or even download the current best-selling weather app, the German-built Weather Pro.
But whatever the preferences of meteorologists, most people would rather opt for being told exactly what the weather is going to be like, despite the fact that this is often an impossibility. Apple's built-in weather app for the iPhone receives criticism for merely showing high and low temperatures alongside a pretty icon representing the likely state of the heavens, but many people would rather accept that information than find out the likelihood of the forecast being incorrect.
Regardless of our attitude to weather apps, it's likely that smartphone technology, as it develops, will end up playing a role in weather forecasting. "I can see temperature and light sensors being used to report data," says Geere. "The amount of data gathered would outweigh the fact that some of that data would be less accurate."
But the chances of us blaming ourselves for inaccurate data submissions when we get unexpectedly drenched on a July afternoon would still, however, be very slim.
The app from the UK's national meteorological service, including five-day forecasts with sunrise and sunset times, traditional weather maps, rainfall radar and satellite imagery. It also allows you to save and access a number of favourite locations so you can check current conditions and outlook with a single click.
The Weather Channel
Blackberry, iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile, free.
Weather Channel Max for iPhone, £2.39
Displays the current weather conditions, hourly forecasts for the next 12 hours, a 36-hour forecast or a 10-day forecast, depending on your whim. Also displays an updated video of a UK two-day forecast, voiced by a Scottish gentleman with lilting tones. It's a US app so can lack some UK details, but the "Max" version for iPhone offers various enhancements including a Severe Weather centre.
iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Mobile, £2.39 (depending on platform)
Currently top of the paid-for weather apps chart in the Apple stores, WeatherPro is produced by Germany's MeteoGroup and features a greater level of detail than its competitors; dewpoint, relative humidity, air pressure and percentage chance of rainfall. This is incorporated into a seven-day forecast, alongside radar and satellite images.
iPhone, Blackberry, Android, free, or £0.59 for Accuweather Quick
Accuweather gives current conditions, hourly (for next 14 hours) or 15-day forecasts. Radar maps, video bulletins and weather risk charts are incorporated, with "Weather Alarms" if you want to be alerted to a particularly nasty incidence of, say, fog. Also, uniquely, it shows UV and Air Quality Indices. Again, rather US-centric but serves the UK pretty well.
iPhone & iPad, free, or £1.19 for an ad-free version
Probably the nicest looking of the bunch, Weather+ features animated backgrounds and a neat, easy-to-navigate layout – although it's perhaps odd that most of the display is given over to a clock. It offers hourly forecasts for the current day and the next four in advance, and more detailed information including humidity, air pressure and visibility.
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