Weather service updates mobile website for local forecasts

New website will offer better navigation, more targeted forecasts

Although this year’s severe weather season is almost over, the National Weather Service is preparing for next year by updating its mobile website to debut in 2012.

The service is developing a redesign of that offers on-the-go weather and marine forecasts by ZIP code.

The service introduced in 2007. It provides forecasts for any ZIP code along with radar and satellite images, marine forecasts and severe weather warnings. Service officials acknowledge it has limitations and its technical protocols are dated.

The updated version will take advantage of the latest Web browser standards and include more high-resolution imagery and better navigation, weather service officials said in interviews Sept. 8.

The service plans to begin the rollout in January 2012 and to have the new mobile site fully functioning by next spring.

“We want to leverage more advanced computing and more advanced Web browsing,” said Mike Gerber, a scientist on the emergency dissemination service team at the service. The outcome will be improved imagery and better navigation that allows users to access geographically targeted weather forecasts more quickly and with more detail, he added.

“We want to make sure people get access to our information as quickly and easily as possible,” Gerber said. “We are trying to save lives and minimize property loss.”

The current was designed for Wireless Application Protocol browsers in cell phones. It has relatively low-resolution imagery, difficulty in navigation and with zooming in on a location, and targeting limitations in its forecasts.

Under the current protocols, the site provides a forecast to a nearby location in the service's geographic grid system, generally within five kilometers, said Herb White, director of the dissemination service team.

Because of the way the current forecasting system was designed for the browser, the forecasts cannot be targeted further to the area closest to the user, White said. “That is one thing that will be improved,” he said.

Although five kilometers may not seem like a great distance, in some situations, such as in mountainous areas or along the shorelines, there can be a huge difference in forecasts within a short distance, Gerber said. The upgrade will provide more geographically targeted forecasts and use a better method of targeting for greater accuracy, he said. The cost of the upgrade is expected to be less than $100,000, he added.

The current mobile website, while limited, will continue to operate until the update is complete. “It still has great usefulness,” White said, “and it still is a very valuable way of getting weather information.”

Although the service is considering is considering developing mobile applications for iPhone and other smart-phone systems, using a mobile website has advantages because it can be used by all types of smart phones, Gerber said.

The site is one of several federal programs to disperse federal weather information. The service makes its forecasts and data widely available through the media, the public and commercial providers. Some of those providers have developed their own weather forecast mobile applications.

In addition, the service has an emergency warning text message service for community leaders and emergency managers. It also is coordinating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Communications Commission on the PLAN initiative to offer personalized text alerts to the public. The PLAN service will begin operation in New York City in several months.

The current version of is available at the mobile applications gallery. The General Services Administration’s Making Mobile Gov office tweeted an invitation Sept. 8 to try out the existing mobile site.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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