A blog written by Meteorologist Nate Johnson of http://www.digitalmeteorologist.wordpress.com


When Apple first released the iPhone, one ad that got a lot of attention — so much of the kind of attention that it’s nowhere to be found on YouTube — was one featuring someone purporting to be an airline pilot.  The pilot says air traffic control told them they can’t take off due to weather at their destination, but thanks to his iPhone, he knew better.  He pulls up the radar for their destination, confirms there’s no bad weather there, and tells ATC, who promptly and without question gives them the go-ahead for takeoff.

iPhone, courtesy of Flickr user TwonPhoto courtesy of Flickr user Twon

Anyone familiar with the inner workings of commercial aviation knows the flaws with that ad, but its nonsense raises an interesting point.  With the explosion in the smartphone industry, a lot of folks are walking around with very powerful and capable computers in their pockets.  The range of applications available is fantastic for experts and enthusiasts alike, as they take a wide range of information and data products and put it all in the hands of, well, experts and enthusiasts alike.

Herein lies a potential problem.  Without getting into the details of the State Fair incident — most of which will only be uncovered by a proper and independent investigation, regardless of the governor’s “fluke” conclusion — this begs the question: Does putting these tools and data in someone’s hands automatically make them credible and qualified to use those tools and interpret those data?  Clearly, the answer to that is “no” — however, there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s exactly what happens anyway.

We know, for example, that people under a threat will seek to confirm or personalize that threat before deciding whether to take protective action.  One way some have done this is, after watching a television meteorologist analyze radar data during a severe weather cut-in, attempting to recreate what they’ve seen on TV.   If they’re successful in this re-creation, that is often “good enough” for confirmation and will open the door toward taking action.

Velocity image showing a potential tornado, courtesy of Flickr user jastrzabVelocity image showing a potential tornado, courtesy of Flickr user jastrzab

The problem is that radar interpretation is not for the timid.  It’s an area where what you don’t know that you don’t know — akin to Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” — can bite you.  If you have not been trained and don’t know about aliased (or improperly de-aliased) Doppler velocities, for example, you might falsely identify a tornado, or worse, miss or misidentify an actual one.  And radar interpretation doesn’t — and should never — take place in a vacuum.  If you were to correctly identify a fine line from surrounding echoes or clutter, how do you know whether it is a harmless wind shift or the harbinger of strong winds?  Even the best smartphone radar apps don’t provide the necessary environmental context to make that kind of assessment with any kind of certainty.  However, that’s another part of the process that non-meteorologists rarely see or get the opportunity to learn about.

Specifically about the Indiana State Fair incident, colleague Brad Panovich writes:

I love technology and especially my iPhone, but a weather app is not a meteorologist just like WebMD is not a doctor.

I couldn’t agree more.  Weather, like health, is one thing we all have in common.  We’re all subject to it, and nearly all of us talk or complain about it.  Everyone’s got an opinion, and now, everyone can have access to “pro-sumer” and even professional-grade tools, empowering everyone to observe the atmosphere, predict the weather, and get forecasts from the great database in the sky.  But simply having access to the tools of the trade does not make one capable of plying that trade: Training, knowledge, and experience do.  However, that line is being blurred with every new app that’s released.  Unless we as an industry make it clear what value we bring to the table, we will blur that line until everyone’s an expert.

And if everyone’s an expert, no one is.