The True Cost Of Free Weather Data

With the abundance of smartphones in today’s society and technology advancing on a seemingly daily basis, gone are the days of having to read the newspaper or watch the evening news to get information on the weather. Smartphones, and the internet in general, have made access to the weather just a click or tap away. With the vast majority of these websites and applications being free to use, users often pick their favorite based on appearance, features or gimmicks. While these free weather sources are likely sufficient for deciding what clothes to wear or whether to bring an umbrella, free weather data comes with hidden risks, risks that could prove very costly or even deadly for certain users.

Who made the forecast?

Every weather website or smartphone app likely features a forecast, sometimes with temperatures and icons representing fractions of an hour. But while it may be comforting to see a sun icon for your outdoor gathering on Saturday, do you know where that sun icon comes from? Or how frequently the forecast is updated to ensure the sunny forecast remains valid?

Access to weather data, including weather models, is free in the United States. That means anyone with some coding knowledge can extract the raw output of a weather model and format it to create an eye-catching mobile application, with no meteorology degree required. These same weather models are usually run once every six hours, meaning your “forecast” may only change four times a day. While that may seem adequate to the average person, any meteorologist can attest to the fact that looking at only one model is far from the best way to forecast. They would likely also confirm that forecasts should be refined more than four times a day, especially on active weather days.

Specialized forecasts

Assuming there is a free weather source that has meteorologists creating hand-crafted forecasts 24/7, their forecasts are likely still lacking critical information relevant to decision makers. This specialized information may take the form of lightning strikes for those working outdoor events, phone communication for those in emergency management, or road condition forecasts for those travelling or working to keep travel safe.

In the case of road weather information, a free weather source is likely to contain information related to sensible weather and not include any information about expected impacts to roads. While this may not seem like a big deal, a forecast for light snow can cost (or save) an agency thousands of dollars depending on whether snow will stick to the road or melt on contact.

Free weather sources will also not provide information on pavement temperatures. Consequently, they will not give any indication that non-precipitation hazards such as road frost, black ice or blow ice are possible. All of the aforementioned conditions can create hazardous travel and would likely prompt maintenance actions. If highway maintenance departments relied strictly on forecasts that did not include pavement information, they could be caught off guard with respect to these hazards, greatly endangering the public.

Taking it a step further

Road weather forecasts, like those provided by Iteris’ ClearPath Weather® platform, will unquestionably add valuable information to your winter maintenance decision-making process. For those who desire more detailed information, users also have the ability to customize the modeled roadway so it more closely represents the actual roadway conditions. This customization can include details such as traffic volume, roadway construction, amount of sheltering and number of lanes. Information with regard to available chemicals used for treating roads can also be customized, allowing for better and more appropriate recommendations.

More bang for your buck

When it comes to weather forecasts, the saying “you get what you pay for” certainly applies. While free weather forecasts may seem like great value for those with budget constraints, free services can end up costing more in the long run, particularly in industries that rely heavily on the weather. Paying for specialized forecasts from trusted meteorologists will help you get the most bang for your buck.