How the new iPhones could help scientists predict the weather

How the new iPhones could help scientists predict the weather

Researchers are excited to learn that the new iPhones have barometers

The new iPhones have an added capability that's of particular interest to scientists: A barometer.

The barometer capability wasn't added to help scientists, though. It sounds strange but a barometer can help improve GPS results to better pinpoint a user's location. Android has supported barometric readers for a while, but not all Android phone makers have opted to include barometers in their phones.

Improved location readings are useful in new kinds of apps that Apple wants to support, particularly around health trackers.

But there's another reason that the barometers are interesting. It's because scientists hope to use them to crowdsource data so that they can do a better job at predicting the weather.

Researchers are already using data collected from an Android app that measures barometric pressure. Jacob Sheehy and Phil Jones built the app, called PressureNet, and have been sharing data collected from it with scientists. They also let other developers build their technology into third party apps as a way to further distribute the technology and collect more data.

They launched PressureNet in 2012 and have had 95,000 downloads but only about 22,000 people actively use it, Sheehy said. However, including third party apps, like Beautiful Widgets, around 300,000 phones are capable of feeding pressure data to PressureNet.

So far around 300 people have signed up to use the data from the app, 100 of whom are researchers. But only around 10 or so are active, Sheehy said.

One of those active researchers is Cliff Mass, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. He's collecting data from both PressureNet, which provides around 90 percent of the data he gets from smartphones, and OpenSignal, the developer of another app that collects pressure data. He's getting around 115,000 pressure observations per hour.

"We need millions of observations per hour over the U.S. to do the job," he wrote in a blog post about his work.

He said the phone-based collection of data might help meteorologists do a much better job predicting weather, including severe incidents like thunderstorms, that may happen in the coming hours. "To forecast fine-scale weather features (like thunderstorms), you need a fine-scale description of the atmosphere, and the current observational network is often insufficient," he wrote. "I believe that dense pressure observations could radically improve weather prediction, and early numerical experiments support this claim."

Mass was excited to discover that the new iPhones will have barometers since having more phones with this capability in the market could help him collect the volume of data he needs.

Users will first have to download an app. Sheehy said that he's working on an iPhone app and an SDK so that others can build his technology into their apps.

Mass has high hopes for broad adoption. He's reached out to Google about building technology into Android that would help capture pressure data from all phones. While a number of Google engineers have been "supportive," Google doesn't appear ready to enable such collection, he said.

Mass also notes that if a very popular app like from the Weather Channel built this capability into its app, far more data collection could happen.

Until then, Sheehy hopes that inviting iPhone users to get the app might significantly grow the user base. So far, it's been tough for people to share the app with friends since existing users are limited to Android and to only certain Android phones. At some point, presumably all iPhones will have barometers, adding a large base of potential users.

In addition, there's just something about Apple. "Apple has a way of making things mainstream, so I expect to see a much fuller and more competitive landscape now that Apple is here," Sheehy said.

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