Tuesday, February 1, 2011

more storm communication

Did the forecast scenario's and/or forecaster methods work tonight? On one hand, the uncertainty on the depth of snow was well communicated. But both the TV and NWS focused in on a time frame when the precip would start ... 3 hours later and they missed on the precipitation type. Midnight was in numerous forecasts until the radar indicated otherwise. Pesky thunderstorms again. The precipitation type in Norman was rain for like 5 minutes before massive amounts of sleet were being dumped on us.

I don't think this was a failure at all. Just an example of how difficult it is to convey uncertainty information. In the public eye you have to convey a time. But when you do, it needs to be accurate and precise. And it just isn't possible to be precise and accurate in situations like this. I can let the sleet go because it was amazingly awesome that so much sleet fell ... better than freezing rain!

We live in very uncertain times and we simply lack the communication skills, that practical knowledge of how to convey uncertainty, without falling back to hard and precise numbers.  Humans have had to live with but not necessarily convey uncertainty information.  We say things are uncertain then make assumptions and decisions based on that uncertainty probably without thinking too hard about conveying it. We acknowledge it, decide, and move on. Whats in the past may be reflected upon, but the situations are always unique such that it is hard to know what, if any, information may have changed your mind one way or another. Sometimes we make decisions based on gut instinct or informed decisions about "likely outcomes". At least we think we know what the outcome will be. More often than not we stumble upon the outcome while trying to make our way towards our anticipated outcome.

I find it interesting and also compelling that weather information, specifically concerning uncertainty, finds itself in the same situation as personal medical data and also the terror alert system.  There was a good TED talk about the personal medical data; how it is displayed, what information to convey; giving the statistics of where you fit in. They are tailoring the information to the end user. In a similar way the terror alert system promises specific information, how to act on it, and who and where need to be alerted. It sounds like they are issuing a weather service style advisory,watch, warning type of system.  I am eager to see what they bring to the table and how.

To wrap up, our society is dealing with uncertainty communication, and it is working its way down into all aspects of life. Clearly we have lots of work ahead and the lessons we learn now might help with regional climate change. A more educated society is required in these uncertain times to utilize this uncertainty information.