Popularity of new weather-reporting app stuns officials

At some level, we’re all weather geeks.

Kim Elmore is sure of it.

“There isn’t anybody that isn’t affected” by the weather in some way, said Elmore, a research scientist for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, an Oklahoma-based research organization that is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That, Elmore said, helps explain why in just one month several thousand people have downloaded and used a new weather app that allows them to report what type of precipitation is falling where they are – and even if no moisture is falling at all.

Already, the National Severe Storms Laboratory has received 22,000 reports in the first month the Precipitation Identification Near the Ground – or PING – app has been in use.

That’s five times the number of observations gathered by telephone over the past six years, Elmore said.

And NOAA hasn’t even begun promoting PING’s existence.

“It’s unprecedented,” Elmore said. “We have more than we ever thought we would” in such a short time.

It’s all due to social media, he said. Folks are hearing about the apps on sites such as Facebook and signing up for it.

Chance Hayes, warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service, said he was “quite surprised” by the app’s rapid rise in popularity.

“It’s quite impressive,” he said of the public response.

A system that dumped significant amounts of lake-effect snow on the Chicago area last week reflects one way the app is catching on, he said.

Numerous people in the area downloaded the app and began filing reports on what was happening in their area, he said.

The app is simple and basic but the information is vital, Elmore said, because it provides “ground truth” for what the radar is indicating.

The new dual polarization radars that are gradually being installed around the nation by the National Weather Service were designed to better interpret how much rainfall is falling at a given point so forecasters can more quickly warn of looming flash floods – such as the one in the Flint Hills of Kansas that killed six people on Labor Day weekend of 2003.

But the lowest scans by the radar aren’t at the surface.

“Radar beams don’t curve as fast as the Earth does,” Elmore said. “Using the radar in that way just didn’t work very well for characterizing precipitation on the ground.”

Yet people have come to expect the new radars to tell them what type of moisture they’ll receive, he said. That’s why the reports sent through the new app are so important.

Researchers can compare the ground truth reports with what the radar is indicating and develop algorithms more accurately depicting what kind of precipitation is reaching the surface, Elmore said.

That information isn’t just valuable for farmers, he said. It’s important for city managers and highway crews, too.

Hayes said he sees the app being most valuable during winter storms.

“It’s going to help us delineate the lines between rain, freezing rain and sleet, or snow, depending on what folks are reporting out there,” he said.

The Wichita branch has links for downloading the app on its website.

Apps have been developed for both iPhones and Android phones – which represent about 80 percent of the platforms used in the 100 million smart devices in the continental U.S., Elmore said.

If just one-tenth of one percent of those people sent one report a year, he said, that would still be 80,000 weather reports.

“This just gives us access to a whole bunch of people – far more than we could access any other way,” Elmore said. “And they don’t have to be at home.”

Researchers are hoping to get regular reports from users all over the country so they can develop an algorithm that could be used nationwide.

The early success of the project has prompted discussions over the development of apps for reporting severe weather and reporting snow depth, Elmore said.

“We will undoubtedly do that,” Elmore said. “At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion. The only question is how.”