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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

Weather Service website falters at critical time

By Jason Samenow

(updated at 4:15 p.m.; originally posted at 2:30 p.m.)

nws-logo.jpg

Anyone attempting the to access the National Weather Service (NWS) website over the last day or two has likely encountered significant problems. The website's performance has been persistently sluggish and, at times, content - including forecasts and warnings - has been inaccessible.

This comes at a time when a massive, life threatening storm is affecting more than 100 million people with warnings and advisories in 20 states.

For NWS, a government agency whose mission includes "protection of life and property", dissemination of timely information during hazardous weather events is vital. Recall that just yesterday I wrote about the importance of effectively leveraging technology to communicate information during hazardous weather.

NWS staff noticed the problem Sunday, according to spokesman Curtis Carey, and had staff in Kansas City and Silver Spring working on it quickly. Equipment was replaced and the problem is now "stabilized," Carey said.

NWS websites appeared functional as of Tuesday evening but loading slower than normal.

The performance issues were linked to "unprecedented demand" on the site's infrastructure, according to Carey. On Tuesday afternoon, the site was getting 15-20 million hits per hour.

"The traffic was beyond the capacity we have in place. [It] exceeded the week of Snowmageddon."

The NWS website received 2 billion page views during the week of Snowmageddon, according to Carey. On an average day, he said the website receives an average of about 70 million page views.

Efforts are underway to improve "internet dissemination services," according to Carey: Additional upgrades are planned for the spring and summer. In the meantime, Carey said, NWS has "what's absolutely necessary to operate."

Indicative of larger problem?

In addition to this recent performance problem, the NWS website has been criticized for its usability and design. The website Congress.org ranked the NWS portal weather.gov the second worst government website in October, second to Time.gov - which simply gives users the time of day. Its critique:

Weather.gov's problem isn't that it offers too little information, like time.gov. Instead, designers say it offers way too much--"The website has like 10 million things on the front page," said Owen Astrachan, a Duke University professor of computer science.
The page links to more 100 other sites, prominently features a confusing map, and is very awkwardly sized.
"NOAA [NWS's parent agency] has a nice logo, and the banner has some hope," said [Gena] Romano [creative director of D.C. area web design firm Top Shelf Design]. "But unfortunately, it was stuck into an awful template that partially resizes with your browser. The royal blue glares at you like this was the first website built when there were only five web-safe colors to choose from."

Richard Hirn, General Counsel and Legislative Director for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said the site's problems are "symptomatic of a larger problem at the NWS" stemming from inadequate funding.

Part of the problem with website operations stems from the organization's culture, claims Hirn.

"There is insufficient impetus in agency management to innovate," he said.

But Carey said NWS has an initiative in place to improve site accessibility, usability and design. It's seeking public comment on a prototype next month.

The revamped site will feature a map with Google zooming/panning functionality that will allow, for example, an emergency manager to scale down to the local level.

Linking will be simplified so that links are organized by category and customer needs.

"We're going to provide you with quick access to help you accomplish your task," Carey said. "We've done a lot of analysis on our customers and what they want and need."

By Jason Samenow  | February 1, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Government, Latest  
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Comments

Apparently, the slowness of the NOAA website (and lack of the hourly weather graph) is because they are in the midst of rolling out a new website. I don't have any idea what that process looks like, or how long it takes. But I heard something about new images and a redesigned site coming soon.

Posted by: ebgb500 | February 1, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Poor Gubmint performance is old news. This is why you not only don't want Gubmint in weather/warming nonsense, but in healthcare, retirement, housing finance, on and on and on...

Posted by: KPosty | February 1, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Umm....clue to NWS...
roll that stuff out in may or june. after the winter, before the tropical weather season.

Duh.

Posted by: jiji1 | February 1, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Backing out of this thread very slowly....

Posted by: miglewis | February 1, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

@ KPosty

Oh good, let's let thousands die because there is no NWS to issue tornado or blizzard warnings.

Posted by: Dylan0513 | February 1, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Jason, thanks for posting this. With the theme at the AMS Annual meeting last week being “Communicating Weather and Climate”, I thought sure there would have been buzz about the issue. There might have been, but although I was keeping my antenna tuned to this, I didn't pick anything up.

I recall all the fuss, confusion, reservations, complaints, etc when the basic template was imposed by NWS Headquarters on all agencies and departments within the NWS. Some, like most of NCEP, have since modified their web sites with various work arounds to mitigate some issues with the NWS web site itself.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 1, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Millions of Americans live out of range of sirens and make out just fine, thx. I did once upon a time, and we used our common sense to stay safe, rather than rely on Gubmint. Like most Gubmint nonsense, you'd be better off were it dumped and your money returned to you.

Posted by: KPosty | February 1, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Sooooooo, how about those Packers! :o)

Posted by: ThinkWarm | February 1, 2011 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Millions of Americans live out of range of sirens ... and rely on information about weather that ultimately comes from the federal government (even if the forecasts are issued by Accuweather or The Weather Channel).

Posted by: Murre | February 1, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

So Kposty, you'd be fine living on the Gulf coast without the weather service? Unlike tornado warnings, there's not a whole lot of evidence of that category 5 hurricane bearing down on you until it's too late to evacuate.

And of course, you can defend your house against an invading army, and know how to check your food for botulism(the toxin of which is NOT destroyed by heat) or salmonella, and how to know if your water is safe, and to protect your home from thieves. And how to know if that drug they're offering to anyone with "x" as a problem might have complications..

You don't? But you'd need to know all that if there weren't any "gubmint". Guess you do need them after all.

The "gubmint" after all, inspects meat and processing plants, and sets water quality standards, and drug standards, and provides the army and the police(depending on which level of "gubmint" you're talking about.)

Posted by: barbaramusser | February 1, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the interesting update. As a recreational pilot, I use weather.gov to obtain certain obscure information, but as a person I find it more difficult to understand and/or utilize. I wish CWG had a website for pilots!
Thanks again!

Posted by: Wfisler | February 1, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Will there be a school cast for tomorrow? Thanks f

Posted by: LGB31 | February 1, 2011 3:54 PM | Report abuse

I have spoken to friends in Chicago (used to live there) and they are still at work! They are going to have the same exact situation that we had here last week but 10 times worse. It's amazing to me how many of them think that they really won't get snow or that it won't be as bad as the forecasters are saying. Bosses aren't canceling meetings and companies aren't closing early or letting employees leave early.

I don't care how many plows you have—when it snows hard and fast and the roads are clogged with cars they cannot keep up.

What is wrong with people?

Posted by: mudbucket | February 1, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

...Hard to tell, but I think KPosty is being sarcastic/trolling. Either way, this is a weather blog, and there are plenty of other forums at wapo for political discussions...

Posted by: crashinghero | February 1, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Didn't AccuWeather try to privatize what the NWS is doing a few years ago?

Posted by: RepealObamacareNow | February 1, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

@jij1 - I wonder if they're rolling out changes now because 1) funds are available after short period continuing resolutions, and 2) if they wait until May - June, some other crisis will have absorbed the funds.

More broadly, It's hard to come up with an architecture that will scale to a 400% increase in page views, especially under the policies governing federal IT expenditures. You could argue, in fact, that having that kind of underutilized capacity would be the definition of inefficient. There might be a way to contract out for excess capacity but that too isn't cheap.

Posted by: haggis | February 1, 2011 4:46 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post. One question - the Congress.org page says all NOAA sites got 63 million visits Jan - Aug 2010, and the above post says 70 million/day, 2 billion the week of snowmageddon...?

Posted by: eb22 | February 1, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"The website's performance has been persistently sluggish"

Pot calling the kettle black? Not picking on the CWG, but whenever one of us makes a comment and hits submit you can get up from the computer, use the restroom, come back, and your comment still is waiting to submit. That's why you have so many double and even triple postings of the same comment. People think it didn't go thru and try again. Any idea on when/if this can ever be fixed?

Posted by: rwalker66 | February 1, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

See some former NWS malcontents posting here!!!!!!!

Posted by: Jimbo77 | February 1, 2011 5:43 PM | Report abuse

@eb22

You may be comparing different metrics. Page views and visits are different things.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | February 1, 2011 5:47 PM | Report abuse

"Didn't AccuWeather try to privatize what the NWS is doing a few years ago?"

No, Santorum tried to pass a law that would allow AccuWeather to use gov't products to make a forecast, but it would have been illegal for the government to then issue a free forecast based on those same products. Basically they would take what you paid for with your taxes and hand it over to a private company to sell back to you. Of course it didn't pass.

In theory a private company could set up the infrastructure required to duplicate what the NWS is doing, but I doubt it could ever be profitable. It would require satellites, networks, computing power, observation stations, personnel, and probably other things I am not even thinking of right now. I also doubt a private company would want to be legally liable for solely producing hurricane forecasts & similar.

Posted by: snowvert | February 1, 2011 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Outsource to the Weather Channel. It will save billions and a better, less cumbersome product will be delivered to the people.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | February 1, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

snowvert: believe it or not, such a market already exists in this country. And thanks to the baseline weather data being free (unlike our "friends" in Europe), that market is about 3 times the size of that in Europe. It's such data that allows companies like AccuWeather, Intellicast, or TWC (The Weather Channel) to exist to begin with.

Cornell: I'd hope not. TWC product is crap.

Full disclosure: I'm a meteorologist myself.

Posted by: ajfroggie | February 1, 2011 6:21 PM | Report abuse

@rwalker66

Yes-our website performance could improve. We're moving toward something better...

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | February 1, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

@eb22

Jason is correct on the visits vs. page views point. The number of visits Congress.org sites (not sure where they got the number) is actually far below what we typically see. At a bare minimum, Weather.gov, and other weather service sites, host 6 million visitors on a typical day. We expect the number of visits during this winter storm to dwarf typical.

As Jason reports we do need to improve weather.gov and we have efforts underway now. In the meantime, our systems administrators are working 24 hours-a-day to keep things online.

Curtis Carey, NWS Communications Director

Posted by: curtdc | February 2, 2011 7:36 AM | Report abuse

@eb22

Jason is correct on the visits vs. page views point. The number of visits Congress.org sites (not sure where they got the number) is actually far below what we typically see. At a bare minimum, Weather.gov, and other weather service sites, host 6 million visitors on a typical day. We expect the number of visits during this winter storm to dwarf typical.

As Jason reports we do need to improve weather.gov and we have efforts underway now. In the meantime, our systems administrators are working 24 hours-a-day to keep things online.

Curtis Carey, NWS Communications Director

Posted by: curtdc | February 2, 2011 7:40 AM | Report abuse

Many NWS employees voluntarily spent the night at their offices during this storm, sleeping on cots and eating microwave food so there would be 24/7 coverage and people would have life saving information. Many will not be compensated for some of this time away from their families. Millions and millions of dollars were saved within the U.S. economy because of great forecasts and the ability for commercial companies to plan ahead. It's too bad that congress is planning cuts to this economical goverment service when more money should be added to improve the technology and increase the savings. Public safety will be at risk if funding is cut!!

Posted by: slashman | February 2, 2011 10:39 AM | Report abuse

We all have to make hard choices between conflicting priorities. If
we expect the NWS to warn the US population ahead of severe
storms, Hurricanes, and Tsunami, we must provide the Agency
with the support that it needs to do provide those warnings.
Gutting the NWS's funding, while at the same time expecting the Agency to provide life saving warnings to our population, is simply an unrealistic expectation. Either we accept the increased loss of life
and property that future natural disasters will inevitably bring, or we fund the Agencies whose job it is to protect us from them.

Posted by: barryhirshorn | February 2, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

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