Blame it on the weathermap 

3 June 2005

BBC Weather

Kirk Northrop rains on the BBC’s new weather parade

Sometimes technology is excellent: innovation often makes things better; computers can make information clearer.

But of all the old adages, two hold true more than any others. They are: “Keep it simple, stupid”, and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Unfortunately, in this modern world, advertisers lead us to think that things are broken, and want us to pay them to fix them for us.

There’s a reason why weather maps have, apart from the odd exception, always been a flat outline of the area concerned with some simple symbols overlaid to tell us if we need an umbrella or not. It’s simple. It’s easy to understand. It takes no thought to process. In short, it ‘just works’.

A couple of years ago, some focus groups told the BBC that the weather needed to be made clearer, and the style needed updating. As it happened, the equipment at the BBC was also getting old, and therefore needed replacing. And so New Zealand firm Metra was asked to bring their 3D “Weatherscape XT” software to the UK stage.

The whole concept is soundly based. If the data is all there, why not use it to show the weather, and why not let a PC do the hard work, instead of the presenter? This would surely mean that instead of wasting their time filling maps with symbols, they could spend more time forecasting – according to the BBC, anyhow. But if all the maps are automatically generated, how much forecasting are they actually doing?

Early BBC weather symbols

Michael Fish with early BBC magnetic weather symbols (BBC)

The new system represents the biggest change to the BBC’s television weather reports in 20 years. The BBC Television Service broadcast the first in-vision weather forecast in the UK, presented by George Cowling, on January 11, 1954. In 1985, computer-generated maps replaced magnetic symbols (above). The Metra software was introduced on May 16, 2005 to widespread condemnation, and it’s not hard to see why.

Let’s start with how the weather is portrayed. At first glance it makes sense: if it’s sunny, then surely the land will be bright. If it’s cloudy, it will be dark. Very clever. What happens if it’s 50% cloud cover? Ah. They haven’t thought of that.

A view of the system as originally introduced (Metra)

A view of the system as originally introduced (Metra)

The other problem is that the weather isn’t as accurate as they make out. If I look at the weather on the BBC, I could reasonably be expected to assume that if the dark/light divide runs through the centre of the dot marking Manchester, I will walk through the city centre and suddenly all the cloud will disappear. We all know the weather isn’t like this. In fact, while modern radar systems may tell you what’s happening on the ground now, it’s often hard to forecast – ie predict – the weather with any more accuracy than what a large area will approximately be like, which is exactly what the old-fashioned symbols showed.

Picture of the old weather symbols

The old symbols only indicated the outlook

for a general area. Truer to life? (BBC)

And that’s the least of the problems.

Approximately 8% of the population are colour-blind, to varying degrees. Along with at least 75,000 households watching on a black and white set, this makes a significant proportion of the viewing audience who have been completely forgotten about by the BBC: it’s very hard to tell the difference between the light and dark areas with any clarity, and especially when the viewpoint of the virtual-reality ‘camera’ is moving about/

And this is yet another fault with the system: the moving viewpoint. It may look very impressive, but it’s not very helpful as you are obliged to concentrate on the movement and not the weather itself.

Scots complained that the 3D views favoured the South (it’s ‘nearer’ the viewer), with the Scottish National Party calling it ‘daft’ and ‘distorted’. Complaints from viewers, and even in the House of Commons, have already forced the BBC to change the viewpoint more towards the vertical.

Before and after shot showing the changes to the map

Criticism from Scotland caused the BBC to move from the original viewpoint (left) to a more ‘overhead’ effect (right) (BBC)

Sailors, anglers and other groups have expressed dismay that wind data and isobars are rarely shown in the new forecasts. And the dirty brown colour of our fair isle has attracted much controversy. One writer to the BBC web site said, “Our ‘green and pleasant land’ has become muddy brown; what we normally associate as sky blue is now rain, which would be better grey; it’s all a bit of a mix-up.” Meanwhile ITV noted that they had turned the software down.

All in all, this has been a disaster for the BBC. But while promising to ‘monitor audience feedback’ – over 4,000 complaints were received in the first two weeks – the BBC has so far refused to back down, and it looks like the new graphics are here to annoy us for years to come.

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