New Tools for Hunter-Gatherers of Weather Data

A Monthly Weather Review paper in press by Otto Hyvärinen and Elena Saltikoff notes that the widespread availability of weather photos on the internet presents an opportunity for meteorologists gathering storm data.

People of the generation born since 1982 have grown up using computer technology. Cell phones, text messaging and the Internet are all part of their culture. Now they are acquiring more and more devices with good quality cameras and Global Positioning System (GPS) abilities. They share photos and reports with friends and strangers alike. Typical messages can be divided into two categories: “this is what I saw” and “this is what happened to me”. At first glance, these data are unreliable, unorganized and uncontrolled. But the amount of data is huge and increasing and should not be ignored, and its reliability should be assessed.
Because shared photos on Flickr, for instance, are time-stamped and often with good location information, the authors were able to compare hailstorm identification using the online photos to gathering the same information the conventional way, with radar signatures.
As a result of this preliminary study, we think that further exploration of the use of Flickr photographs is warranted, and the consideration of other social media as data sources can be recommended.

Similar ideas were making the rounds at the AMS Annual Meeting in Atlanta earlier this year. The Centers for Disease Control has been using Google search data to pinpoint influenza outbreaks (a Nature paper on the topic is cited in the new MWR article). Who knows? In the coming age of Web 3.0 the plodding old methods of gathering storm and climate data may go the way of hunter-gatherer societies. The information revolution may create myriad, as-yet-unimagined tools for the community–and not just as a means to deliver products.
Which brings us to the irony of using the habits of the populace to reinforce expertise, and a cautionary tale from Australian columnist Bryan Patterson that’s been making the rounds of the internet again these days:

An Aboriginal mate told me this story which maybe explains how the weather system really works.
It was April and the Aboriginals on a remote reserve asked their new elder if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was an elder in a modern society he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky he couldn’t’t tell what the winter was going to be like.
Nevertheless, to be on the safe side he told his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the tribe should collect firewood to be prepared. But being a practical leader, after several days he had an idea. He went to the telephone booth, called the Bureau of Meteorology and asked,
“Is the coming winter going to be cold?” The meteorologist responded, “It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold.”
So the elder went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. A week later he called the Bureau of Meteorology again.
“Does it still look like it is going to be a very cold winter?” The meteorologist again replied, “Yes, it’s going to be a very cold winter.”
The elder again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find. Two weeks later the elder called the Bureau again.
“Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?” he asked. “Absolutely,” the man replied. “It’s looking more and more like it is going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”
“How can you be so sure?” the elder asked.
The weatherman replied,
“The Aboriginals are collecting firewood like crazy.”