James Spann: Weather apps and Alabama winters are a bad mix

James Spann: Weather apps and Alabama winters are a bad mix
Not all weather apps are created equal, so be careful relying too heavily on them. (iStock)

We live in the “age of information,” yet ignorance and misinformation seem to be at an all-time high. Those of us in the weather enterprise laugh at journalists upset over “fake news”… welcome to our world. We have been fighting this for a long time.

Our biggest issues come from weather enthusiasts, or Internet entrepreneurs simply looking for eyeballs, who have learned that forecasts about snow, ice, severe storms, floods, and tornadoes get all the clicks, shares, and likes. Truth in this case doesn’t matter. And their trick is forecasting these high impact events two to three weeks out, where there is no skill in specific predictability. People that love “sexy weather” will flock to these blogs and Facebook pages and share away with no regard for the truth.

Oddly enough, the other source of bad weather information comes from weather apps that you have on your phone.

I know most of you up front are immediately thinking we don’t like weather apps because that is the new preferred source of weather information and people don’t wait until a television newscast to get a forecast. In reality this doesn’t bother me at all; we want easy weather access for the public, and an app is convenient and available any time at your fingertips. Our weather segments on ABC 33/40 are an excellent supplement to what you see on your phone; we tell a story the app can’t.

During quiet weather, these apps are pretty good to five days. But, we rarely have “quiet” weather during the cold season here.

The problem? Most all of these apps are totally automated, using raw “model output statistics.” This data is assembled into a nice graphical interface that is easy to use. But, the forecasts in most cases go way beyond the limit of our ability to predict specific weather events. Most all of them do a 10-day forecast, some a 20-day forecast, and one even does an outrageous 90-day forecast. In the words of Del Griffith, one of the characters in the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” played by John Candy, you would have better luck “playing pick up sticks with your butt cheeks” than getting a forecast right 20, 60, or 90 days out. Yet people actually use this information to plan important life and business events.

Weather apps can have a difficult time predicting winter weather like that expected in Alabama on Friday. (iStock)
Weather apps can have a difficult time predicting winter weather like that expected in Alabama on Friday. (iStock)

On my recent holiday vacation, I answered multiple questions from panicked people seeing a big snow storm, ice storm, or blizzard on their app in the 10-30-day time frame.

And, of course, when the app is wrong, we get all the blame. The trolls, haters, and know-it-alls are all over us because of their phone app we have nothing to do with.

WHAT TO DO: Yep, you know it. I will tell you to read the Alabama Wx blog. We (actual humans that are trained in meteorology with years of experience) spend long, hard hours writing easy to understand discussions that are frequently updated explaining it all.

Sure, we can be wrong. That is just the nature of forecasting weather. But I have detailed verification statistics, and short-term forecasts written here are correct over 95 percent of the time. (Of course, we hear the stale joke on a regular basis about us being wrong over half the time and still get to keep our job.)

APP PARADE: These are the apps I recommend. None of them are perfect, but I have them on my phone.

ABC 33/40: Yep, I work for these fine people, my friends in the news department are my family, and you can see the blog there, in addition to the Weather Xtreme videos and WeatherBrains. All in one place. Sure, it has a 10 day automated forecast I am not very happy about, but you can see all of our meteorologist produced products there. Get the iOS version here, and the Android version here.

WEATHERRADIO BY WDT: This is my preferred app for warnings. These guys get it right, and you need it on your phone. You control what warnings you receive, and it warns you not only for your specific location, but also for fixed locations you can program into the app. And, it works on the polygon warning system. If you are in the polygon, you get the warning. If you are not, you won’t.

RADARSCOPE: Best radar app on the market by far. The pro version allows for high resolution live lightning and other cool functions.

SOCIAL: Another thing we can do that apps can’t is answer your questions. I am on all platforms, and am honored when you pick me for your question about weather.

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And, on Snapchat I am “spannwx”.

We are just asking for you to take it a little deeper, beyond your weather app, when the weather gets active. You won’t regret spending those extra few minutes to actually find out what is going on.

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