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March 14, 2009

1

iPhone Weather Spotters

by brainoids

OK, so my first entry is a riff off of an existing idea, but I think has real legs.

The inspiration comes from a recent NPR Science Friday story about the National Phenology Network, which gets citizen-volunteers to share their observations of plant phenology (first bloom, etc) to help monitor climate data.

Neat, but I’m thinking a fairly “niche market”, and a web interface, while it will get the job done, may not be the best way to encourage participation (during the interview, iPhone, Twitter, etc future interfaces were briefly mentioned).

A much, much larger “market” could easily exist with severe weather spotting, and I’m zeroing in VFR-direct to the iPhone app concept. Everything fits: embedded GPS, the need for mobile (distributed and realtime) observations, and a responsible government agency (NOAA) without the resources to truly monitor the full spatio-temporal variability of all the weather we need.

This is so simple as to be almost a no-brainer. CONOPS: Fire up the app, allow GPS access (one tap), check off the weather spotted (hail, sleet, wall cloud, funnel aloft, tornado on ground, whatever), and upload. As a reward you get access to the distributed network of real-time observations, which as point obs should be pretty snappy to download over 3G.

A couple of different business models could apply:

  1. All volunteer / altruism. I like this model, but potentially limits the volunteer base to weather geeks. Revenue from the app alone @ ~$0.99 price point. SETI@home confirmed the existence of the geek-volunteer niche years ago.
  2. Free and wholly government-sponsored. Try to squeeze NOAA for underwriting money. Unless they’re eager to earn Obama “participatory government” brownie points, expect an app NET 2013 with nearly unusable requirements creep and a butt-ugly UI.
  3. “Micro-employees”. A significant after-market exists for value-added weather products as decision-support tools (customers: utilities, golf courses, etc). Generate a value-added product, sell it to one of the national “shops” like Weatherbug, and share the revenues with volunteers on a per-observation basis. (Could guard against fraudulent observations by requiring their obs to be “confirmed” with another observation before crediting). Micropayments to PayPal, iTunes Store credits, etc.
  4. “Micro-do-gooders”. As above, but observation credits go towards donations to charities-of-your-choice. Adds a green/socially conscious spin that makes participation hip.

Why straight to iPhone, ignoring web, Facebook, Twitter, Crackberry, etc? The need for (a) GPS locations, and (b) real-time observations is key. I suppose hacks could enable some limited quality data to be uploaded via web or mobile web type applications as well, but I honestly don’t see an awful lot of people taking time out to type in a lot of location data into their web/mobile web browsers to do this.

Starting with a pathbreaking iPhone app also almost, by definition, sets some expectations around how quick/seamless/elegant the data entry “should” be. The Palm/Crackberry/etc follow-on apps can always be written after they catch up to the iPhone’s GPS and UI advances.

Rough estimate : ~13 million iPhones world wide (Q3 ’08 numbers), estimate 1 in 10 people are a weather geek or latent weather geek … that’s a lot of spotters.

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