Wednesday, February 25, 2015

wunderground - weather edward tufte could be proud of

For obvious reasons, Bostonians have been EXTREMELY INTERESTED in the weather as of late. It has been a heck of a season here in "Hothworld".

There's a plethora of apps and sites out there to tell you the forecast for the next 5-10 days, but few that hit a sweet spot of conciseness and detail. Some take very wordy approaches, like the local TV news weatherman, and go on and on about fronts and pressure systems and what not. It's can be nerdily interesting, sure, but a bit much when you're just trying to make plans for the next few days. Others, like the default iOS weather app, undershoot: each day is represented by a single weather type icon (sun, snowflake, cloud) and two numbers (expected high and low). That's not enough info! There's such a difference between a sprinkle and a deluge, or some light snow flurries and the kind of blizzards Boston has been enjoying, but you don't know what to look out for with such a simplified display.

Enter Weather Underground. There's a lot going on on their typical city weather page, with a day summary (they use different modalities, including a unique version in words "Today is forecast to be MUCH WARMER than yesterday.") But my eye is always most drawn to their 10-day-forecast:
It's a little hard to see shrunk down like this, but it is truly a thing of beauty. If you're in a hurry, you can just skim the top row, and get about the same amount of information as the iOS app. But then, below that... WORDS! "Snow Showers" says something that a mere cloud with snowflakes icon doesn't. More importantly... a guesstimate as to the AMOUNT of precipitation, and a reminder of the type (rain vs snow, with the icon ghosted out if it will be a trace amount.)

(If I had a program on my phone that was just that top row, that would probably be sufficient... Sadly, the iOS wunderground app drops the precipitation amounts... clearly someone there doesn't realize the beauty of what they've got.)

Below that is a graph that seem to risk information overload, but it's still cleanly presented. There's a certain pleasure in seeing the red line mark the rise and fall of temperature over day and night across multiple days. Personally I don't find the "pressure" line as useful, but it's educational to see how the rise in pressure tends to precede precipitation. And the break-out of precipitation in amounts over the course of a day is great in an area where mornings can be snowfests and afternoons crystal clear, or vice versa (also, the area under the precipitation graph (time duration x probability) echoes and reinforces the guesstimate as to total amount.)

Wind speed and direction aren't often useful to me personally, but it's easy enough to ignore that bottom part, and I imagine very interesting for some regions and/or activities. (The arrows embedded on the line itself help distinguish it from the other two lines. Similarly, red is a good choice for a temperature line, because of the semantic association with heat.

Information Display expert Edward Tufte (his last name pronounced so that you can slip it into that "Humpty Dance" rhyme) talks a lot about "information density"; the more meaningful information you can put in proximity, the smarter an analysis you let people make. (Personally I think he tends to neglect ideas like chunking and other tough to quantify aspects of helping people navigate great volumes of data, but still.) Compare wunderground to Google's default weather display:
It takes up about the same amount of screen real estate, but tells you so much less at a glance. There's no whole day precipitation estimate. Much of the same hour-by-hour temperature / precipitation / wind are there as well, but you have to click for it, you can't get it all at once.

I admit Google's is prettier, and has that nice sense of breathable white space, and so some might prefer it. Overall though, I'm smitten with wunderground allowing me to absorb the story of a week at a glance, and wish more apps would give the total precipitation estimations.

No comments:

Post a Comment