Complaining About the Weather Apps

Charlie Warzel, the Atlantic:

Technologically speaking, we live in a time of plenty. Today, I can ask a chatbot to render The Canterbury Tales as if written by Taylor Swift or to help me write a factually inaccurate autobiography. With three swipes, I can summon almost everyone listed in my phone and see their confused faces via an impromptu video chat. My life is a gluttonous smorgasbord of information, and I am on the all-you-can-eat plan. But there is one specific corner where technological advances haven’t kept up: weather apps.

This is a bizarre article. It seems like it was intended as a timely response to the recent problems with Apple’s Weather app, but I am not sure what point it is making.

The paragraph which follows this opener is a recitation of common problems with weather apps, plus complaints about the accuracy of weather forecasts. Those are completely different things. The forecasts shown in apps from Weather Underground or the Weather Channel are the same as the forecasts shown on the web, and have nothing to do with the app itself. This distinction is not trivial — later in the piece, Warzel acknowledges weather forecasting has become more accurate.

Warzel then explains why weather apps differ:

Traditional meteorologists interpret these models based on their training as well as their gut instinct and past regional weather patterns, and different weather apps and services tend to use their own secret sauce of algorithms to divine their predictions. On an average day, you’re probably going to see a similar forecast from app to app and on television. But when it comes to how people feel about weather apps, these edge cases — which usually take place during severe weather events — are what stick in a person’s mind. “Eighty percent of the year, a weather app is going to work fine,” Matt Lanza, a forecaster who runs Houston’s Space City Weather, told me. “But it’s that 20 percent where people get burned that’s a problem.”

So it seems like an accurate portrayal of unlikely weather events is a key reason why someone would prefer one app over another. If an app saved you from rapidly developing downpour or blizzard conditions by alerting you first, that might increase loyalty. If an app is overzealous, it might make you frustrated.1 All of this is about the accuracy of widely-referenced models which are getting better, so all apps and services benefit.

If we set aside problems with forecast accuracy, Warzel’s complaints about the apps themselves begin to look less compelling. Apps which present an oversimplified summary of current and forecasted conditions can leave the user with false confidence. Conversely, apps which offer more detail are overwhelming and leave it up to inexperienced users’ own interpretation, concluding:

[…] Although many people need reliable forecasting, true loyalty comes from a weather app that makes people feel good when they open it.

That is not what Warzel wrote earlier. Yes, Carrot is very fun. But if it used backend services which were wrong all the time, it would not matter how many different reactions it had for each time you poked its ocular sensor.

It sure sounds like Warzel is just complaining about the weather, more than anything. Forecasts are sometimes wrong. It sure sucks that some apps do not strike a great balance between clear summaries and information overload. But maybe part of this is how people are often pretty bad at interpreting probability.

  1. During last year’s heat waves, I had to turn off extreme weather alerts for the then-beta version of Apple’s Weather app because it was constantly telling me it was very hot outside. That is useful perhaps once per day, and much less so once every couple of hours. ↥︎