Science takes front seat for NBC's Weathernet4
"When I was six, I saw lightning strike a tree. Ever since then I've been fascinated with the weather."
Now Dave Jones, 32, is weekend meteorologist at NBC4, just down the road in Washington, D.C. from where he witnessed that strike. He can be seen and heard inviting viewers to WeatherNet4, NBC4's weather-related site on the World Wide Web.
In fact, Jones, along with WRC-TV, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other organizations, is engaged in a vital programthe Public Use of Remote Sensing Data (RSD)aimed at finding innovative ways to use the Internet to increase the use of NASA's earth- and space- science data.
The three-year, $2.3-million project began in 1994, and now ranks second in investment among the 21 RSD projects overseen by the NASA Information Infrastructure Technology and Applications (IITA) component of the High Performance Computing and Communications Program. "By linking television and the Internet, we can provide the highest exposure to earth- and space- science data," says Fritz Hasler, manager of the RSD Program at Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).
Science and WeatherNet4
The winter's east coast storms, Hurricane Andrew (1992) and Hurricane Fran (1996), are just two examples of phenomena that have increased public interest in the weather. "After the heavy snows of January 6-12, 1996, our hits went from 5,000 per day to 50,000 per day with a total of 1.2 million hits during the total five-day period," says Jones, also principal investigator for WeatherNet4. ("Hits" are the number of times any section of a Web site is accessed by users. A user makes a hit by landing on different graphics or pages within the site.)
Today, this first-of-its-kind Web site averages 70,000 to 80,000 hits per day. WeatherNet4 was also listed as a Top 10 Web site in Communication Week (January 8, 1996) and in Netscape's "What's Cool" section.
The weather images, in turn, will help generate understanding of NASA data while heightening Internet exposure. During the blizzard, Jones displayed NOAA satellite images such as a high-resolution Geosynchronous Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-8/9 image showing snow cover. "We are bringing two million people face to face with everything from satellites to Internet browsers. It is this kind of daily interaction that breeds familiarity," said Jones, who helped put together a guide on Internet Activities Using Scientific Data that was jointly published in September under a cooperative agreement between NOAA and NBC4.
Jones admits that not everyone has Internet access, but most everyone has television. In fact, NBC4 has broadcast over 200 segments relating to WeatherNet4, NASA, and the Internet; even surfing the Internet live has become a regular item on broadcasts. "Bringing the Internet to the kitchen table and living room of the American people stimulates their curiosity to access the site to learn more about the earth- and space- science data," states Jones. "We can see people accessing images within 15 seconds of telling them about the data on TV."
Position on the Internet wave
Hasler, who has been involved in NASA's RSD activities since 1993, recalls the beginning of the program when the Internet had not taken off. "NASA helped buy the Internet. Part of this program was to build on that investment, making sure it got used by the public." Hasler admits, "Perhaps it's something to do with WeatherNet4's position on the Internet wave, peering over the top, that makes Dave Jones about six months ahead of everyone else on the information highway. You may ask: 'Is that an unfair advantage?'"
No, considering NASA invited everyone to participate in the original contest. Over three hundred other companies, including universities and research institutions, submitted proposals to a cooperative agreement notice titled, "Public Use of . Earth and Space Science over the Internet." NASA made 28 awards in total, and WeatherNet4 was one of the 21 RSD projects.
"Dave's been a shameless promoter of the Internet from the beginning," states Alan Nelson, assistant manager of the RSD program. "And it seems the position of meteorologist is an automatic springboard for the post of public science ambassador. This is a role Dave takes to heart."
Graduating from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical sciences and minors in math and computer science, Jones seems custom-made for the role. "We're a very scientifically-based station," says Jones, referring to co-investigator on the RSD project, WRC's chief meteorologist Bob Ryan. "We're also in the information dissemination business. That's the best scenario for sharing a wealth of educational material pertaining to planets, solar systems, weather and the Earth through WeatherNet4."
Jones admits it is extra work to oversee the project and update the Web site two or three times per day. That is why meteorologist and weather producer Mark Hoekzema has taken over the Webmaster duties. "But it is for a great cause. I wouldn't want to do anything else because we're on top of new technology and telling people about it on the air. Our staff is excited to be a part of it." Jones seems comforted by the fact that the Web site allows all of the NBC4 meteorologists to display more scientific images supporting each broadcast.
Images of weather and science
"A lot of people watching the weather want to know more information, but we've got only three minutes to explain the weather and give our forecast," says Jones. On one broadcast, Jones points to a microburst on radar, then gives a description, then his weather report. He says: "If you want to learn more about microbursts, come on into WeatherNet4."
When Jones invited viewers to the NASA Yohkoh Satellite page to observe an eclipse, so many people clicked their bookmarks that the server overloaded and crashed. "This is great because it shows how we are tying NASA research within our weather broadcasts, helping to bring NASA data like the eclipse alive," adds Jones.
WeatherNet4's home-page graphics are very NASA oriented with an earth- and space- emphasis. "When you go to our Java-enhanced home page, you search the database by activating the shuttle engine, wake up the owl to display educational menus, select flashing lightning bolts, even select the stars of the Big Dipper as menu items. All the planets and the sun also come alive. We want it to be fun for everyone while exploring," exclaims Jones.
Interactive Visible Satellite Images, Real-Time Weather Display and Real-Time Web Weather Watchers are among the many interactive pages of WeatherNet4. "Many of the satellite images are downloaded directly from our ground station at Goddard," says Hasler, who also provides 3-D images for many of the major networks.
"Our educational outreach initiative will make many of the exciting new graphics (satellite, radar, etc.) available through this Web server to schools as well," adds Jones. The 4 -WINDS project (Weather Interactive Demonstration Schoolnet), created by Bob Ryan, uses weather sensing equipment donated by Giant Food and Hughes Corporation at local schools. The information from over 200 weather sensors is shown on television broadcasts and is posted on the Web site.
Two other web pages, under Education on WeatherNet4's homepage, are heavily used. First, WRC added a live satellite field trip called "MeteorologyWinds of Change." The unique satellite field trip, a journey made via satellite feed or through CU-SeeMe on the Internet, has enlightened students about the complexities of weather and weather forecasting.
The second page is Homework Helper, which allows connections to information on physical science to help with homework problems. The information is geared towards grades K-12 and may answer questions on atmospheric pressure, volcanoes, astronomy and tornadoes. "It's just a real convenient and fun way for others to learn," says Jones who began the Homework Helper project after deciding to provide a resource page from a teacher's E-mail. "Teachers, faculty and students love the NASA SpaceLink feature to this web page because they want to learn the science-related aspects of the atmosphere and weather."
Hot on the trail
"Without possibly realizing it at the time, NASA and WRC have mobilized thousands upon thousands to the Web, fortifying Internet exposure to earth- and space- science," Jones states. "This kind of trend has stimulated a lot of other NBC stations to get on-line as well."
Jones is now working with JPL to develop more innovative ways to visualize weather information, an improvement some stations find lagging. "We're already taking data and information such as high-resolution, land-satellite images and overlaying them on digital elevation models. What we want to do is overlay the real-time weather on top of those models for all to see on WeatherNet4."
Jones also wants to download data from a satellite and then pass these images along to every other NBC station in the country. "We currently distribute weather graphics nationally, so there is no reason to stop when so many exciting images are flowing in from NASA and NOAA," he says.
Rainbow over cloudy issues
For many stations, the intersection of television and the Internet is a troubling path that may be shiny in some ways, but a bit murky in others. "When we started WeatherNet4, we showed people they could get weather information from another source besides television. And what are we gaining if we plug WeatherNet4 and lead audiences away from watching TV? Our ratings would go down and that would not be good."
So far, the NBC4 Web site and WeatherNet4 has had the opposite results. The site received more than 1.5 million hits to its Web site last month. And Internet activity is snowballing within NBC, including MSNBC cable, MSNBC on-line and local Web sites covering local news. WeatherNet4 also demonstrates that good Internet service does not drive away viewers but embraces them.
E-mail from WRC's audience shows excellent results. One viewer writes, "My family greatly enjoys and appreciates the availability of your weather information. It is encouraging to us, with all the 'news' about how awful the cyberworld can be for kids, that there is a location like yours that clearly demonstrates the very positive side of the information super highway."