Science has finally solved one of the most annoying questions ever to face humankind – why does the weather report say it's about to rain when everything looks lovely from the front porch?
Pelmorex Media Inc., which owns Canada's Weather Network, will roll out a service Monday that provides hourly weather forecasts within a kilometre of a person's location. It's an unprecedented level of precision that has taken Pelmorex almost two decades to perfect, and positions the Oakville, Ont., company as one of the most advanced meteorological services in the world.
"The breakthrough is a quantum-leap enhancement in providing relevant and accurate weather information for Canadians," said chief executive officer Pierre Morrissette, adding the company's previous forecast range was 10 kilometres. "If I'm at home I'll have the weather for where I live, but I can also find out the weather at work. In many cities, you can see quite a difference."
The popularity of weather websites and apps is a testament both to our national obsession with what's happening outside and our insatiable appetite for technology. But there's another reason so many people are fixated on the forecast – while many people are wired, most of them are overwhelmed by the amount of data at their fingertips.
But anyone can understand the weather, even if they aren't so sure about many of the functions on their fancy phone.
"Weather is local, it's social and it's mobile," said Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor at Queen's University who specializes in mass communications and digital media. "We are often overwhelmed and we like our data in little bits now, and this is perfect for that. Weather really is perfect for smartphones and our shrinking attention spans."
The firm is convinced there is a demand for enhanced forecasts – its internal research has shown that 70 per cent of Canadians have experienced heavy snowfall at home while friends across town were spared. Forty-four per cent of Canadians asked told the company they start conversations by talking about the weather.
The technology works by taking information from weather stations across the country and using computers to predict what is likely to happen in between those stations over the next hour. Users can either enter their postal code or use the GPS function on their phones to find out the weather in an astonishing 800,000 zones across the country.
"What we're doing is an incredibly complicated marriage of science and algorithms," he said. "When we started 15 years ago, a five-day forecast was revolutionary."
While his company is best known for its television station, it is what's happening off-air that is likely to get the company attention in the coming months.
Its Internet site and mobile apps are among the most popular in the country, used by about 20 million Canadians a month (most of them every day). And while the network is still an important part of the business, the company's digital products are actually making more money for the privately held company.
It employs dozens of meteorologists and dozens more computer programmers on its staff of 500 who have been trying to figure out ways to enhance both the accuracy and frequency of weather updates.
The new technology, which is calls PointCast, is the centrepiece. But the firm will also announce a deal to buy Beat The Traffic, a California-based company that provides traffic information for media outlets across the U.S. It will use the acquisition to launch an app and website called the Traveler's Network, which will allow users to find out about the day's weather, traffic congestion, airport delays and problems along transit routes.
"When you are a weather service, you are specializing in hyper-local information and data," said Jennifer Dangar, executive vice-president of business development and marketing at the U.S.-based Weather Channel, which owns a minority stake in the Canadian operations. "We want to be more relevant all of the time, so we need to be forward looking – what are the other things we can help people do?"