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Weather reporting on television

Professor Tufte,

Nearly every time I go on the air, I worry that you will look at my work (like some PowerPoint presentation) and also say: "smarmy, chaotic, incoherent."

It's too much damned pressure having you in the neighborhood.

All the best,
Geoff Fox

-- Geoff Fox (email)

Response to Criticism

Thanks for your nice note.

(For those of you from out of town, Geoff Fox is a charmingly energetic TV weather forecaster in Connecticut, who also writes an interesting weblog )

Here are a few thoughts about TV weather reporting from someone who doesn't have a television:

Other than astronomy, weather produces incredibily interesting images and data. Spoken words are often less interesting and less intense, except for the 60 words (30 seconds) saying what has happened and what will happen tomorrow, which could be a graphic anyway.

Thus intense visuals, nearly independent of the spoken voice, could be beautiful and informative. It must be possible to construct graphics that depict today and tomorrow in context of this year, or what it was like this time last year. The graphics would stand nearly alone, as the voice describes what will happen tomorrow.

And then images: perhaps an intense (there's that word again) pastiche of short clips, similar to the end of Annie Hall, could be constructed (with some explanatory typography) of the day's weather events in the state, or nation, or world. Television is keyed to low bandwidth of the voice (it is that low bandwidth of the voice that leads to the chronic impatience of television). Oddly, television is often thin visually and much like radio, except the viewer sees someone talking. The idea is that television should take advantage of its inherent visuality. So perhaps the personality of the weather person could be heard rather than seen, as beautiful visuals show up on the screen.

Thus weather reporting should have the visual richness and intensity of commercials, which do exploit television's inherent visuality and usually avoid talking heads.

A few years ago I was stranded in a hotel in Washington DC during a snowstorm and tried to find out what was happening by looking at the Weather Channel. It was hard to imagine how the content per minute could be thinner and so unvisual for such an interesting topic. I longed for the richness of the internet, which does not march along to slow linearity of the voice, and which could provide what I needed to know along with wonderful visuals.

Finally, two underlying ideas might help the audience understand the inherent difficulties in forecasting the weather:

(1) If you watch a storm on radar moving across the state, it is clear that dramatic weather events are often patchy; that is, a lot of rain one place but nothing 10 miles away. So the forecast will be right in one place but not in an adjacent area.

(2) A pretty good forecast on average is that tomorrow will be like today; or that 5 days from now will be like that day a year ago. That is, naive persistence-forecasting is not all that bad.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to Criticism (and weather reporting on television)

I recently came across this article and thought this thread could use a bump to the top of the list for a bit.

The article is about the use of 3d in television weather reports. In Chicago at least, 3d displays during weather reports are becoming common. In the 3d simulations, scales become distorted as content creators attempt to make up for the fact that weather at true scale is difficult to visualize. Clouds appear to large, and the altitudes of weather systems are exaggerated. The use of fake rain and snow in the 3d models is also annoying. Seeing fake snow and rain as you fly over the landscape is completely useless as it obscures anything beyond it. Further, it is difficult to understand where you are in the map during the fly though since the scaling is so bizarre. The technology of the fly through animations becomes more about 'infotainment' than anything to do with good information design and communication. I just want to know if I need an umbrella. I'll stick with the NOAA and let the weatherman play 3d games.

-- Jeff Berg (email)

Response to Criticism (and weather reporting on television)

I can't speak for weather forecasting methods or presentation formats in other countries but I can say that the varied outputs of the BBC system for UK viewers are usually first class.

When we stop to consider:

1. the astounding complexity of the natural processes being measured, described and interpreted;

2. the range of frequently opposing needs and different levels of understanding of weather viewers; and

3. the sheer time pressures on weather professionals (between and during live transmissions)

then I think we should welcome cautiously whatever newly emerging methods are being tried and tested if these might have mutual benefits for presenters and viewers alike. As I've said in another context (the evaluation of Powerpoint), the effectiveness of different methods of presentation could - and should - be evaluated using the 'controlled trial' format. Thus, Group A (exposed to 3d graphics) are compared with Group B ('standard' graphics) and results of their test scores (for understanding/recall of the message) are compared.

Notwithstanding the very legitimate concerns of scaling, imaging and 'flying' through models, I wonder if we might reserve judgement until we see what the end product looks like in action?

I'm old enough to remember the broadcasts of the 1960s with 'stick on' magnetic symbols that must have been seen as avant garde for the times. It's a great tribute to the resourcefulness of the BBC that today we have, on the one hand, satellite and rainfall radar plots capable of broadcast within 30 minutes or so of capture and yet, on the other hand, the now institutionalised and strangely soporific 'shipping forecast' for radio listeners only.

I work in the field of Public Health where timeliness of data usually means 'a couple of years ago' and where many methods of information presentation - in any medium - are often grossly deficient.

In practice, I have learned more about optimising presentation techniques for combining complex information with an acceptable format by observing television weather forecasters than any other suitable 'model' I can think of.

With careful observation and a fair wind, we can still learn a lot from the weatherman/woman.

-- Mark Reilly (email)

Is it just me or are the current weather reporting standars of television so low in quality and resolutiion that you might even suggest that they have used the visual befinits so badly that the information quality is worse than no visualisation. I myself am not able to watch the weather and remember ehat it said. My short term memory is busy processessing visualisations of how snowing would look if we lived in a world drawn by Lichtenstein. I find the radio report, I mostly listen to the sea weather forecast, very soothing and au contraire to what one might think more informative in its directedness. Since radio is a secondary medium i can choose to tune out until they arrivr at my current geographical location. Which is not possible in the case of television. I am also able to imagine and get a sensory representation of what that weather might feel like, also not possible when watching television. Or is it just me; the weather is nearly always the same were i spend my time anyway so maby that contributes to my meteorolexia.

-- N. Wiberg Interaction Designer Sweden/Iceland (email)

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