Like much of Europe and parts of the US, last week we suffered some fairly extreme weather. In the early part of the week, we were walking on the nearby Downs on mud frozen like concrete in a biting north-easterly gale at -4˚C (25˚F). By the end of the week, after snowfall followed by freezing rain, even getting up to the main road had become dicy. Then temperatures soared, the snow vanished yesterday, and we were back to being soaked by rain.
It’s at times like those that the internet should be a tower of strength, but on this occasion information virtually dried up.
Most significantly, the UK Meteorological Office took its live weather pages offline, and their replacement offered the last televised weather forecast, or the alternative of using its iOS or Android apps. I wanted to see the rainfall radar, the pride and joy of the Met Office, which has recently completed an expensive upgrade taking ten years. The only way that I could do so was on the Met Office’s own app on my iPhone, or through a third party who pays the Met Office for that service.
The Met Office’s iOS app is not bad, but not a patch on being able to see the webpage. That app is free, provided that you suffer its adverts, which last week were promoting a Bitcoin and currency dealer. If you’re prepared to pay for its in-app purchase, you can dodge those adverts. But why should we have to pay the state weather service again for the information which it is supposed to provide freely?
The explanation on its website appears either disingenuous or incorrect. If demand on a website is high, it makes no sense to remove “some of the less visited pages”. When the Met Office’s forecasters themselves freely admit that they cannot forecast local snowfall, to remove the one source of accurate information and drive the public to use mobile apps from which the weather service profits is, well, profiteering.
I have previously expressed my doubts about the accuracy of popular weather apps such as Dark Sky, and the weather over the last week confirmed their near-uselessness in such rapidly changing conditions. Time after time Dark Sky told me that it was snowing when it wasn’t, or the opposite, and like broadcast forecasts kept falling back to vague generalities, which were also often wrong.
Our local newspaper, which has recently been sold to a large national group, also distinguished itself for its poor news aggregation. Having set up a live blog for what it called LIVE snow updates — travel, service information and pictures, that rapidly came to resemble my aunt’s Facebook page, plastered with photos of cute red squirrels in the snow, and people sledging in the centre of town.
The best information on travel and road conditions came not from what’s left of the local press, but from the transport operators themselves, in tweets. Although these have immediacy, and are supported by their own informative websites, they are hardly an ideal use of the media available, and no one was prepared to aggregate their content.
With three different ferry operators running services to the mainland, this requires you to track three separate Twitter accounts, or visit three individual webpages, to get a full picture of service alterations. Then there is the bus operator, the train service, the road maintenance contractor, and the local council. Although each of the operators performed superbly in the circumstances, no one seems prepared to aggregate their service information.
Central government walks away from this, referring us to the individual agencies. The agencies are now all looking to increase their revenue, to compensate for successive reductions in government funding. The local press laments its falling print sales, and tries to generate advertising revenue without putting much effort into its website.
If you could tell someone from fifty or a hundred years ago about our grim inability to make better use of the internet, they just wouldn’t believe you.