Crowdsourcing the Angry Skies: The SKYWARN Volunteer Network

SKYWARN is a volunteer network of 290,000 trained storm spotters who provide localized weather reports to the US National Weather Service (NWS).  The concept was developed in the late 1960s and comprises a network volunteers who report “wind gusts, hail size and cloud formations that could signal a developing tornado” where they live.

According to Weather.gov, “the information provided by SKYWARN spotters, coupled with Doppler radar technology, improved satellite and other data, has enabled NWS to issue more timely and accurate warnings for tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and flash floods.”

This illustrates how crowdsourcing can be combined with “techsourcing” to provide better results.

Who Are SKYWARN volunteers?

Volunteers include police and fire personnel, dispatchers, EMS workers, public utility workers and other concerned private citizens. Individuals affiliated with hospitals, schools, churches, nursing homes or who have a responsibility for protecting others are also encouraged to become a spotter. NWS encourages anyone with an interest in public service and access to communication to join the SKYWARN program. (1)

Why Join SKYWARN?

There can be no finer reward than to know that their efforts have given communities the precious gift of time–seconds and minutes that can help save lives. (2)

How Are Volunteers Trained?

NWS has 122 local Weather Forecast Offices, each with a Warning Coordination Meteorologist, who is responsible for administering the SKYWARN program in their local area. Training is conducted at these local offices and covers:

  • Basics of thunderstorm development
  • Fundamentals of storm structure
  • Identifying potential severe weather features
  • Information to report
  • How to report information
  • Basic severe weather safety

Classes are free and typically two hours long. To find out when a SKYWARN class will be conducted in local your area, contact your local Warning Coordination Meteorologist. (3)

What else?

In some areas where Emergency Management programs do not provide storm weather reports, people have organized SKYWARN groups that work independent of a parent government agency and feed valuable information to NWS. While this provides the radar meteorologist with much needed input, the circuit is not complete if the information does not reach those who can activate sirens or local broadcast systems.  To this end, SKYWARN also distributes information from the National Weather Service. (4)

So What?

There has been much talk about the potential role of “Volunteer Technical Communities” in the context of disaster response. VTCs, as they are now called, came to the fore in the wake of the Haiti earthquake when their crisis mapping efforts helped the US Marine Corps and US Coast Guard save lives. VTC is the new buzzword, but technology-able volunteer communities have been around for decades. SKYWARN has been active for almost half-a-century.

As my colleagues and I continue to operationalize the Standby Volunteer Task Force (see this blog post and recent article on CNN), it behooves us to learn as much as possible from others who have set up volunteer networks in the past and in other sectors. The SKYWARN example shows how volunteer networks can interface with formal organizations in an effective manner.

The Spotter Network is a newer and less formal volunteer community that is not sanctioned or affiliated with the NWS or any other government agency. Nevertheless, “several National Weather Service employees and other officials have taken an interest in the capabilities [that this network] brings to them to integrate ground truth provided by spotters into their operational responsibilities. All at zero cost to them.”

The National Weather Service has responded positively to increasing public participation by launching the eSpotter, a system “developed to enhance and increase timely & accurate online spotter reporting and communications between spotters and their local weather forecast offices. The use of the system is currently available for trained spotters and emergency managers.”

Conclusion & Recommendations

  • Volunteer groups and government organizations can work together.
  • Volunteers networks include professionals as well as amateurs.
  • Training is an integral component of volunteer technical networks.
  • Government participation is key to leveraging volunteer groups.
  • Government can provide the infrastructure for collaboration.
  • Government reps should sit on the board of volunteer networks.
  • Generating unique data sets will get government attention. Fancy technology, bravado and media coverage won’t.

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