Monday, September 1, 2008

The National Hurricane Center

The National Hurricane Center doesn't exactly present a cutting-edge appearance on the web. The graphical tropical weather outlook on their main page is nice, but the FIXED-SPACE ALL CAPS discussions and advisories are so old-school it's not even funny. If you listen closely, you can hear the teletypes banging on endless rolls of yellow paper. More Web 0.1 than Web 2.0. Nonetheless, it's one of my favorite sites and an outstanding example of what the web is supposed to be, because the NHC is all about making information available to the world at large.

If you watch coverage of a major tropical storm in the US, the meteorologist is basically giving you a digested version of this site. It's well worth reading in the original, the same way Chaucer is but easier. Once you get to know a few terms like "dropsonde" (an instrument-laden capsule dropped from an airplane) and "initial motion" (the current speed and direction of the center), there is a wealth of useful information to be had.

They tell you what they know. They tell you how they know it. They talk about how tropical storms work. They tell you what their computer models are telling them and how well they agree with each other. They tell you what they don't know, why the official prediction is what it is and how much confidence they have in it.

They do this 24/7 (I'm sure there's been a lot of coffee consumed in Miami lately), with a just a dash of personality showing through and absolutely no pretense or fluff. Having spent most of my life well away from hurricanes I've only recently discovered the NHC, but I'm very grateful that they're there. I'm sure I'm not alone in that gratitude.

The original World-Wide Web originated at CERN as a means of disseminating scientific information for the good of all. The NHC site doesn't just look like an early web site. It's very much in the original spirit of the web, in this case not just making information available to the world, but potentially saving lives.

Side note: I would bet that the old-school look is an integral part of the NHC's life-saving mission. Though largely obsolete, the old 5-bit Baudot code of Teletype fame is not completely gone. Sticking to that may LOOK FUNNY, but it ensures that the message can be sent unmodified to as many people as possible, using technology like RTTY via amateur radio if need be. The web is robust, but a category 5 storm is a whole other deal.

Assuming the definitive dispatch is 5-bit friendly, trying to prettify the contents for the web site would be a waste of valuable time. Going the other way and trying to reduce a web-friendly definitive version to pre-web form risks garbling when it matters most.

Another side note: One of the more fascinating aspects of the NHC's discussions is getting to know the personalities of the computer models. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own tendencies and track records. The NHC forecasters know them intimately and are happy to share that knowledge.


Anonymous said...

more evidence, if more were needed, that while doing things well is a good thing, making good choices about which things to do is a much better thing.

David Hull said...

Note to self: repeat of "Chaucer"?