Weather information and dissemination have changed in recent decades. A survey conducted by Five Thirty Eight found that increasingly more people receive their weather information from an App on their smartphone. As a meteorologist, I often get questions about what App I typically use on my phone. It is often amusing when the person asking seems surprised or even disappointed when I give a rather mundane answer. My Forbes colleague Dennis Mersereau wrote a synopsis on some of his favorite weather Apps. He mentioned at the end of his piece that the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) doesn’t have an App. Why is that?
If this was a Facebook or social media status update, I would probably start with “It’s complicated.” The question of why the NWS doesn’t have a Weather App is even more timely since their Canadian counterpart, Environment Canada, recently unveiled its weather App, WeatherCan. The website for the App says,
Receive weather alert notifications in your area, as well as in your saved locations, wherever you are in Canada. Get your latest forecast information directly from Canada’s official weather source.
A quick browse of the Internet may leave you thinking NWS does have an App. The NWS website at this link provides information on on “App-like” functionality at mobile.weather.gov but it is not really a NWS App. Admittedly, it is quite useful if you give it a try though. Lifehacker.com documented a new NOAA (the parent agency of NWS) App call SOS Explorer. Emily Price wrote, “If you’ve ever looked at something like wind patterns on a massive globe projection in a museum, it was likely Science On a Sphere.” SOS Explorer brings that experience to your tablet or smartphone. However, it is still not a weather App.
The weather App space has been dominated by the private sector of the weather enterprise. Before diving deeper into the App discussion, a brief “kudos” moment for NWS. It is one of the most important yet under appreciated federal agencies in the entire the entire governmental structure in my viewpoint. Virtually every single aspect of daily life (travel, agriculture, energy, health, commerce, and the recreation league soccer game) is affected by information delivered by the National Weather Service (NWS). During recent government shutdowns, NWS employees are deemed essential and work on the “promise of pay” or delayed pay. I would love to see how we all got by if NWS employees “really” shut down, but I digress. NWS has a budget of about $1 billion. By my math, that is equivalent to the cost of a cup of coffee for each member of the U.S. population. When I place that against the benefits of the NWS, that is a ridiculous value for the nation.
The vast majority of weather model, satellite, observational, and radar data beneath every TV weathercast or your private-sector weather App comes from the NWS or NOAA. Private companies provide a variety of value-added services for the media, clients, and the broader public. The delicate dance between the role of the public and private sector is at the root of the answer to the question. Increasingly, private companies are running their own weather models, launching satellites, and even issuing warnings. I have explored this issue previously in Forbes, and it is at the heart of the App issue.
NOAA can’t be seen as overly competing with the private sector, since that would go against its longstanding policy support a vibrant private sector community that specializes in customized weather info, including companies such as the Weather Channel, whose free iPhone app is the most popular free weather app, according to iTunes.
However, the NWS employee’s union argued that taxpayers have already paid for the weather information so why should they have to pay for an App. I reached out to the National Weather Service for more insight. NWS spokesperson Lauren Gaches responded:
NWS provides mobile.weather.gov so users can create a shortcut to access weather.gov forecast details and Doppler radar images in real time on their mobile devices. NWS also provides indirect mobile device services by providing data in an industry standard format so it is easily accessible by private sector companies for mobile app development. America’s private weather and climate industry provides a rich array of services based on NWS data, including alerts and general weather information and related forecasts tailored to the mobile community.
For example, there is a basic but highly functional App called NWSNow. Apkpure.com describes the App as, “a FREE weather application with no advertising, no user tracking using the National Weather Service™ and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration™ public API.”
Reading between the lines of what Gaches said, the idea of preserving the roles of the private sector in value-added weather dissemination is implicit in her statement. My goal herein was not to advocate for or against an NWS App but rather to provide some updated context. I have several friends across the federal and private weather community. Many of them have told me that this question comes up almost weekly, “Why doesn’t NWS have an App?” Another goal was to make you aware of some of the other NWS resources that I mentioned.
I certainly use them, but I don’t rely heavily on weather Apps. I am a meteorologist so I like to make my own forecasts or nowcasts. Apps are useful in some regards but should be consumed properly. In dangerous or rapidly changing weather situations like the rare Massachusetts tornado last month (picture above), I encourage a variety of sources like the NWS, National Hurricane Center, Storm Prediction Center, and trusted private sector resources. For many evolving weather events, people still need to hear from a trusted, comforting voice not an algorithm.