Whether Weather Is The Next Data Layer

I made an offhand mention in a blog post last week about making weather status and forecasting more precise and granular by using Square-sized dongles with smartphones, or using the sensors in the phones themselves. Getting down to the individual-person level and then aggregating the data would yield much more precise data than anything currently existing.

Exploring that idea a bit further, what would these products look like, what would they do and--most importantly--why would we care?

If you want to talk portable weather, Kestrel Meters is where you start. Nielsen-Kellerman has been making Kestrel portable weather meters for over 10 years. They're used in everything from construction to shooting, with pricing running the gamut from I-could-see-myself-getting-one-to-play-around-with to not-unless-I-can-expense-it.

 Artist's rendering of an iPhone-powered wind meter

Artist's rendering of an iPhone-powered wind meter

But why do they have to be a distinct product? I'll be writing more on the topic in a future post, but there's a whole new class of products coming that use your smartphone as their brain. This dramatically reduces cost, decreases size, shortens support and upgrade cycles, and is more convenient for the user.

If you look at all but the top-grade Kestrels, the sensors are quite small, other than the wind impeller. The bulk of the device is screen, buttons and the PCB inside. Guess what? If you use your smartphone as the brains and controller, all that's left is the impeller. Now attach that to a 3.5mm plug and insert it into your phone's audio jack and you have a $9.99 personal weather station!

But other than the weather nerds, who cares? As I mentioned last week, there is money to be made with ultra-granular weather status from general consumers, farmers, traders, shippers and more.

Beyond commerce, though, weather is a social layer that is currently under-used. It's an aspect of our lives that we read about, watch on TV, talk about, complain about and even sometimes enjoy. Look at some of your old pictures and videos. I bet you can remember the smell of the rain on that camping trip, the sound of the wind thrashing the house that Christmas, the scalding heat of the sun during your trip to Phoenix.

Weather adds color to our stories, meaning to our memories and common ground to our conversations.

Weather is a data layer for our pictures and social lives, much like location is. But weather inherently includes location, so weather metadata can work with web services to give you so much more. Imagine having a granular weather layer available for any location, so that while you're planning your May trip to Kauai you can see not just average rainfall and temps, but the exact weather at that exact beach on those days each of the last 10 years. Or the depth that's added to your friend's Facebook status when you have the context that she posted it on a gray, damp day. Or the benefits of a weather report that's accurate down to a square yard, not extrapolated from a few weather stations scattered about the city.

It sounds a bit odd on its surface, but weather is a market that is under-exploited. Sure, weather apps are consistently among smartphone owners' most-used apps, but these apps are competing on aesthetics, not content or function. Nearly all of them get their data from the same few sources, such as the NOAA and Weather Underground. We need a new, more reliable, more omnipresent source of weather data. We need to take advantage of the smartphones sitting in 60%+ of all pockets and purses in the U.S., some of which already have barometers. Leveraging each of those phones, either with internal sensors or inexpensive dongles, would yield benefits we can't even conceive of yet.

Besides, weather's just cool.