Preparedness & Recovery

Could The Weather Company Change Emergency Alerting?

In 2013 alone, the company delivered more 150,000 weather alerts to two-thirds of U.S. adults — and it now is targeting its reach to informing people of emergencies.

by / September 18, 2014 0

The Weather Company, best known for The Weather Channel and weather.com, is getting into the emergency alert business — a natural fit given the company's focus and market saturation.

Using its large-scale distribution and weather expertise, the company is, in partnership with local officials, building a localized alerting platform for state, local and private authorities to manage and distribute emergency alerts via The Weather Channel properties and existing local distribution points. 

“The U.S. offers its citizens some of the best emergency alerting capabilities in the world,” said Bryson Koehler, executive vice president and CIO of The Weather Company, noting that the National Weather Service and FEMA ensure national coverage through alerts and the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) system. "But most communities currently do not have a local alerting system to integrate with IPAWS. As a result, many alerts cover large areas or do not provide the types of local details that can best serve the public.”

The new system, which will be piloted by the end of 2014, will allow local emergency managers to determine if and how a weather event, such as a tornado, or a non-weather situation like a road closure, will impact citizens, and provide localized, actionable information before, during and after an event with relevant messages geotargeted to specific areas.

“The new alert system will allow a local emergency manager to see if there is a severe thunderstorm headed their way that may necessitate a road closure, for example, and enable them to provide notice to the public before they are actually impacted,” said Jason Geer, director of product management and alerting for The Weather Company.

Currently there is no universal interface to create alerts. Local areas must buy or build one, leading to low adoption by officials and low public awareness. Geer said the new platform will integrate across platforms, allowing managers to publish to Web and mobile, as well as Facebook, Twitter and any local site via an API. The simpler format saves time, increases efficiency and reduces costs.

The common issue is that people are over-alerted, said Ian Miller, senior vice president of weather content solutions at The Weather Company. "So we are looking to make this a hyper-local approach so people get the information they need when they're in an impacted area,” he said. “The benefit is we are giving people alerts at the right time, without over-alerting them. Currently alerts are often sent out on a county level, but some counties are extremely large and two people within the same county may have very different experiences in terms of the weather at any given time.”

Koehler pointed out that some cities use 311 apps for weather alerts, but it is often difficult to get vast numbers of people to download those apps. For example, New York City has one of the most popular 311 apps in the country. But that app has only been downloaded by approximately 50,000 people — low penetration considering the Big Apple's population is well over 8 million. 

But The Weather Company’s app is the second most downloaded iPad app in history, and the fifth most downloaded app on the iPhone. In 2013 alone, The Weather Company delivered more than 150,000 weather alerts to two-thirds of U.S. adults — more than any other organization.  

“The question became, how do we leverage our amazing distribution power and reach? People may not be thinking about disasters every day, but everyone looks at the weather,” said Koehler. “FEMA has done great work with IPAWS, but only about 10 percent of the counties are integrated into the system right now. There are lots of gaps out there in terms of alerts. We have amazing reach, and we think we’re in a good place to step in and provide some help.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer

Justine Brown is a veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at justinebrown@comcast.net.