WOW: Half-A-Billion Citizen Observations and Counting

Non-traditional observations of weather conditions from smartphones, driverless vehicles, and other sensor-based platforms are exploding as technology improves and becomes cheaper. But the traditional infrastructure in place to gather observations can’t keep up with the mass influx of new data. WOW. That’s the Met Office in the United Kingdom’s solution to the problem. Its Weather Observations Website is not only up and running. It’s humming.
Since it was launched in 2011, WOW ( has seen more than 700 million observations submitted by more than 10,000 citizen scientists worldwide. WOW focuses on ingesting data from personal weather stations, Simon Gilbert, head of the Met Office observations partnerships, said in his presentation Monday morning at the 96th AMS Annual Meeting in New Orleans. This huge volume of data includes the entire 200-year climate record from Oxford University.
The success of WOW has encouraged the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, MetService in New Zealand, and KNMI in the Netherlands to implement their own portals into the website. Collectively, they have reported great success in extending their reach, primarily through “really effective partnerships” connecting the public with the private sector, Gilbert says.
A new version of WOW, the WOW Engine, is currently being developed as a more flexible and adaptable data management platform. Using application software to talk to hardware, it will be possible to quickly and easily ingest new sources of observational data, including complex metadata, which will be managed, stored, and visualized through a variety of channels. The metadata will comply with the WMO Integrated Global Observing System (WIGOS) Metadata principles, allowing users to benefit from the potential for WIGOS to create a ‘”network of networks.”
Gilbert reports the use of WOW, which is supported by the UK Department for Education and the Royal Meteorological Society, is expanding in schools as well. Weather stations are being provided to schools, and teachers and students are being encouraged to submit data.
As traditional threshold-based weather warnings transition toward impact based warnings, the need to gather evidence of impacts will be critical. WOW contains this capability and soon will be available for mining data from social media and other live sources.
Harnessing the power of citizen scientists is potentially a game changer for meteorology as the increasing resolution of NWP models is not matched by a corresponding increase in the density of traditional observing networks. The citizen scientist with an app on their phone, or in their car or home, can provide supplementary observations that will provide useful additional detail to modelers and forecasters.
A key challenge is how to manage the balance between quantity and quality of the observations and to identify the most effective ways to use this kind of data, Gilbert says. He personally doesn’t think such crowdsourcing will replace funded observation networks. But even with WOW’s low-level quality control capability, the shear volume of data can be used to identify trends.