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Snowstorm postmortem — how technologies have failed

January 1st, 2009 · 1 Comment

Like many parts of the country, the area I live had several snow storms in the past two weeks. The entire city was paralyzed for several days. We snowed in for an entire week.

It’s interesting that how technologies have failed when we need them the most before and during the snow storm:

  • Because of extremely slippery road condition, many people were trying to take buses. But, the metro bus web site was down for three days since the very beginning of the snow storm. When I hit the metro bus URL,I got a page with "Out Of Service" message. Later, Metro Bus published a text page with schedule and re-route updates. But, many of the updates were inaccurate. Ironically, this was the best time for metro bus to acquire new customers. 🙂
  • The weather forecast was frequently inaccurate in term of timing and severity. According to the forecast, initially my area was supposed to have 5 inches of snow over night. I woke up in the morning and there was no snow. Many people like myself thought the forecast was wrong. So, we went to work. But, it started snowing hard in mid-morning. The forecast was off by about 6 hours, which caused a lot of inconvenience to commuters. Also, it happened for several times that the forecast said that we’d have 1-2 inches of snow, but we ended up having 5 inches of snow or more.
  • No detailed updates on local road condition. Local news focused on major highways. But, the most troublesome and dangerous spots are the local roads. I tried to use Google Map, but it didn’t show how drivable the roads were.

Public transportation, weather forecast, and road conditions are probably the three most important aspects of responding to major snow storms. I see several opportunities from technology perspective to help improve our infrastructure and ability to respond to snowstorms:

  • a twitter-based network of drivers who volunteer to update local road conditions 
  • granular, more local-based weather forecast. I think most weather forecasts cover a wide area with multiple micro climates. We need forecast at more granular, micro-climate level.
  • the local government and department of transportation need to get their acts together. They need to load test their web site to make sure it’s ready to handle huge traffic spikes.

What’s next?

Are you intrigued by the study of weather (i.e. Meteorology)? The snowstorm experience really piqued my interest. I found an excellent weather blog by Cliff Mass, a professor at University of Washington in Seattle. If you want to learn more about weather forecast, check out Cliff Mass Weather Blog.

Good amateur equipments for observing weather:

Tags: Innovation · Learning and Growing

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ted Howard // Jan 1, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I used to use the traffic webcams around Seattle. I used to live in Seattle and work in Redmond. Seattle could have seen no snow while Redmond had inches on the ground. Whenever I suspected that was the case, I used the many traffic cameras to gauge whether I should drive into the snow or not.

    As for microclimates, try predicting San Francisco weather. It changes block by block on many days.

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