Poorly designed weather alerts Matt 07 Sep 2005

15 comments Latest by mike

Recent events have shown us how important it is to properly alert people to dangerous weather conditions. Yet take a look at this severe weather alert as it was posted last week at MyWay.com. Talk about an intimidating block of information. It’s all caps, the most important information is buried in the middle, and there’s no visual emphasis anywhere. Where’s the map showing the areas affected? Why isn’t there a clear description of the threat and its severity right at the top? It’s a shame when information that clearly warrants good design is presented in such a cloudy way.

15 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Darrel 07 Sep 05

I really wish the national weather service could find some funding to fix the stuck CAPS LOCK key on all their keyboards.

Noah 07 Sep 05

Yeah, that IS bad, I wonder if their more afraid of a severe legal storm if they do anything wrong, rather than actually helping people. Perhaps they lack the resources to do better but I doubt it.

When I see something like this I often wonder if it was a developer who didn’t want to put more work in who sold them on the idea of a text only useless feature…

That’s just me tho

Dave Simon 07 Sep 05

That’s probably a case of “that’s the way we’ve always done it!”

I tried to read one before Katrina last week, and I had the same reaction as you, bad design. Learn some leading, get rid of the caps-lock. Organize the info.

They should do something where it clearly states the W’s, just like a news story. What, where, why, what time. What precautions should be taken?

Tom 07 Sep 05

These updates have been in this format since long before the web — they’re intended for forecasters and meterologists, not end users. I used to run a weather web site and we examined moving them over to a more user-friendly format but it’s very difficult. There’s no standard for the content and it’s risky to attempt to “scrape” the information from a liability standpoint.

The authors (National Weather Service) have little impetus to improve the quality of the meta-information. In fact, they’re currently under fire for even providing this at all to the public — Senator Rick Santorum (R, PA) has been pushing a bill to prohibit them from providing forecast data to the public (funny that Accuweather happens to be based in his district.)

Stephen 07 Sep 05

Another good reason why unix keyboards don’t have a caps-lock key.

The BBC seem to get it about right:

The first indication that bad weather is approaching is given with a ‘Weather Watch’. This will be broadcast on the website, digital text services and Ceefax. This could be issued up to five days in advance and will emphasise that while these conditions are possible, they’re not certain.

Before the second stage ‘Weather Warning’, indicated by the red warning symbol, is broadcast on all BBC Weather output, forecasters […]

Can’t beat a big red sign the get the message across.

Ted 07 Sep 05

I suspect that ALL CAPS and no paragraph breaks had little, in the end to do with the damage and response to Katrina.

Certainly the National Weather Service reports aren’t intended for general public consumption. It would be nice if they were better formatted…along the lines of the president’s daily briefing.

But it’s up to weather sites, newspaper sites, etc. to display forecasts nicely on the web.

Tom, is that really true about Santorum wanting to stop the Weather Service from providing forecast info to the public? Seems nuts. And it’s a bit sad/funny…finished reading Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm a few weeks back.

All about the 1900 hurricane that wiped Galveston off the map. His analysis included the point that bureaucratic fighting over weather data and refusal to release it to the public had alot to do with the human toll in that storm.

Darrel 07 Sep 05

Ted:

Here’s a link regarding the santorum bill:

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/content/news/epaper/2005/04/21/m1a_wx_0421.html

I can’t believe with live in a country where santorums get elected.

andrew 07 Sep 05

Edward Tufte needs to get ahold of those people.
www.edwardtufte.com

Tom 07 Sep 05

It’s entirely possible that the system those are originating on simply doesn’t recognize case, and it’s less confusing to show in all caps than lower case (where you might not realize there is a capitalization issue at first.)

Back in the day (‘94?) those all had to come off a “Gopher” server. They may well have been originating in a mainframe-type system. We’re talking primitive, folks. And I’m betting it’s the same guys typing those in as 10 years ago, and they’re not any more interested now in messing around with meta information or capitalization — the NWS isn’t hiring too many copyeditors and these guys are paid to be meterologist, not webloggers.

Dan Hartung 07 Sep 05

It’s all caps, alas, because the NWS still supports a legacy teletype network going out to public safety agencies and media. There’s a computer system available, too, and I wonder how many recipients have moved over to it.

The NWS is also an old-school, military-derived profession which remains suspicious of anything which takes away from their jargon-filled insular world. There’s always been a big reputability gap between “weatherman” and “meteorologist”, for instance. The whole point is being able to parse these reports.

Obviously the NWS has a lot to learn, not just about formatting, but about giving up control.

Andy 07 Sep 05

I have to say that the site your screenshot is from is a horrible example. Similar information I get off the NOAA site at least has blank lines to delineate information, making it more readable.

Probably someone just dropping the whole thing in paragraph tags with a non-monospaced font.

e.g.

http://www.erh.noaa.gov/data/txtprods/OKX/HWOOKX

(not sure if that link will consistently work… dial in any city on the NOAA site and select the Hazardous Weather Outlook)

Anyhow, I agree with the whole teletype thing, and the fact that most of this information scrolls across the bottom of your television screen in one single line. I’m guessing the ellipses are there to indicate “sentences” but also to indicate that the notification isn’t over yet.

Jeff Shell 08 Sep 05

The severe weather alerts here, when they’re on TV, have horrible audio quality. But it’s basically that text as you see it there. The NWS isn’t going to make it better any time soon, and in most cases, severe warnings come across the wire not long before the event is set to occur. When a tornado or severe thunderstorm is set to strike an area, having the cool little map with fading effects mixed in with satellite photos is a little less of a priority than hearing / seeing the words “Fredericksburg” or “Downtown Salt Lake”. For events that aren’t as rushed, it’s a bit different of a story. But a more specific provider can take that information and present it in a more meaningful way. In many cases, this is best done locally, where local understanding of the geography can be best applied. The best radar images I can get now for keeping an eye on storm activity when it’s nearby is from a local TV station’s web site. The radar images update frequently, have quick animation, and the map has more town names on it than a weather.com or accuweather map, making it easier for my mind to reference where certain activity is at or coming from.

Shannon 08 Sep 05

You think these are bad, look at aviation weather reports. That said, all pilots know how to read these briefs and the shorthand and “nonsense” (at it appears to us laymen) is actually the best way to communicate the information quickly and accurately.

Example aviation weather forecast:
KSAT 081653Z 08007KT 10SM FEW050 30/18 A3013 RMK AO2 SLP183 T03000178

Translation of same forecast:
Conditions at: KSAT observed 1653 UTC 08 September 2005
Temperature: 30.0C (86F)
Dewpoint: 17.8C (64F) [RH = 48%]
Pressure (altimeter): 30.13 inches Hg (1020.4 mb)
[Sea-level pressure: 1018.3 mb]
Winds: from the E (80 degrees) at 8 MPH (7 knots; 3.6 m/s)
Visibility: 10 or more miles (16+ km)
Ceiling: at least 12,000 feet AGL
Clouds: few clouds at 5000 feet AGL
Weather: no significant weather observed at this time

(PS: apps have been made to translate these into a format laymen, or lazy pilots, can read. The “translated” option on this page —> http://adds.aviationweather.noaa.gov/metars/


Dean W. Armstrong 12 Sep 05

Independent of the NWS, that was a Special Weather Statement, not a “severe weather alert”, as whatever web site you took that from labeled it. The NWS’s Severe Warnings are much tighter, shorter, and to the point. A statement is only a statement, and not a Watch or a Warning.

mike 13 Sep 05

doesnt matter. no one listens nor reads those anyway. take a look around when there is a severe thunderstorm warning - people are still outside doing whatever. same with a tornado warning - people DONT prepare during watches either.

heh - just look at New Orleans. NO ONE listened. they all laugh at weather geeks on TV so, whats the big deal if its sent in russian or jibberish or english?

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