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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/25/2008

Help us Create a New Weather Index

By Andrew Freedman

At the Capital Weather Gang (CWG), we strive to make weather information fun, interesting, and above all, relatable to daily living.

To that end, we're exploring the idea of creating a new index, or scale, that would fuse numerous bits and pieces of weather forecast information together with other relevant news information to convey how your overall "weather day" is going to go. We'd like your help to make it happen.

Think of the proposed index as a companion to the often-used wind chill and heat indexes, except that instead of being just for extreme wind or cold, this index would be for everything weather-related. I'll call it the "All Weather (+) Index" for the purposes of this column. The "+" sign denotes the potential to integrate non-meteorological variables, such as the beginning of a holiday weekend, that could change how we feel about the day despite inclement weather. Ultimately the index would be given a name with less of a corporate ring to it, like "Harold," to borrow a term from the world of improv comedy.

The index would be highly relevant, fun, and easy to use. It would be the "George Foreman Grill" of weather forecasts. I don't normally endorse products in this column, but man, that grill is a ridiculously convenient invention for busy professionals on the go. (Can I have a free one now?)

The concept for such an index, which was initially raised by the CWG's editor at washingtonpost.com, is aimed at capitalizing on the current state of weather forecasting and communications technology.

Meteorologists now have a formidable array of tools to employ to make their predictions, from Doppler radar to satellites to computer models. Sometimes it seems as if meteorologists have so many toys to play with that information overload is occurring. Forecasts can suffer in part because both forecasters and forecast consumers don't understand all of the information being given to them.

This phenomenon is similar to the concerns of aviation safety advocates who worry about the potential for new "glass cockpits" in aircraft to cause accidents by presenting so much information to pilots that they forget to focus first on flying the plane.

For example, although a weather geek like myself appreciates being given as much weather information as possible as part of a forecast, I doubt that everyday weather consumers need to know what the dew point temperature is, or that there is an "upper level disturbance" nearby, or even that a "bow echo" is approaching.

Instead, they need to know what this information means for them. Will it be a bad hair day? Will it snow? Should they head to the basement?

The All Weather (+) Index would help answer some of these questions. But figuring out what goes into this index and how to implement it is tricky. All of us at the Capital Weather Gang (CWG) are working on this, and we'd like your advice.

We have yet to decide what form the index would take. That's a pretty basic issue, I realize. But our failure of imagination in this regard hopefully won't prove fatal to this project. I mean, Steve Jobs must have a few moments of "idea block" before coming up with another directive to create an even smaller iPod, right?

Here are some of the issues we're grappling with:

Should the All Weather (+) Index consist of a number, such as an overall score? Or should it be a graphic, like a whole new set of those typical weather symbols you see on the five-day-forecast? Or would it be something entirely new and TBD, like the weather itself?

The index would be subjective in many ways, and potentially simplistic. But it doesn't have to pass the peer review process of an American Meteorological Society journal; it just has to be understandable and relevant to our site's readership (that's you).

Perhaps a meta-weather index would initially be crafted from a list of more distinctive adjectives to describe the weather. There is certainly room to explore this option, and some weather forecast outlets are already being more creative with their language. For example, Chicagoist recently published the following headline: "Wind Chill to join Wintry Mix at "Things That Suck" Convention."

Or along a different line of reasoning, a new index or scale could use a numerical baseline. Each day's weather would be assigned an overall number score on a scale of 0 to 100. A high temperature that does not go above freezing, for example, could knock the day's score back 20 points. That overall number could then be reported raw, or be converted into an adjective or other metric based on a formula or subjective judgment.

The problem with this method is that there are so many variables to consider when determining the implications of a weather forecast. Calculating the day's index would involve so many numbers that it could very quickly become a matter of creating an entirely new computer model to decipher a forecast that was itself generated in part from the output of other computer models. Yikes!

Another idea is to utilize a symbol system, which might prove useful as long as it doesn't veer into using emoticons.

"Tomorrow's forecast: ;) " doesn't add much value to weather information, although it would indicate that the forecast is for a sarcastic day, which could spell trouble.

So, tell us: What are you currently getting from our weather forecasts that you aren't getting elsewhere? What is still missing? How do you see a meta-weather index or scale as adding value to your life? Do you think it would be too simplistic?

Send your ideas of an index, including what variables it would include, how it would be calculated, and what the symbols should be via our comments section and/or via email. If we use your idea, we'll send you a free copy of the beautifully illustrated Washington Weather book by CWG photographer Kevin Ambrose.

By Andrew Freedman  | February 25, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Capital Weather Gang, Freedman  
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