john hirst outside Met Office

Moving closer to our goals

1 July 2010

In a year that witnessed floods and the coldest winter for three decades, our work has rarely been more important — or come under closer scrutiny. Here, Met Office Chief Executive, John Hirst talks about the highs and lows of 2010.

Q. How well did the Met Office perform this year?

A. We performed very well and met all our Key Performance Targets. There's no denying that some of the weather we were forecasting was quite tricky, so it wasn't always clear if we were going to hit all our short-term targets. But actually the quality of the forecasting has been excellent throughout the year. Our performance during the Cumbrian floods, for example, was exceptional and the short term forecasts during the very severe winter were outstanding. But our less obvious successes have been just as important to us. Our Finance Team, for example, are leading the way for other government organisations in bringing in new international financial reporting standards. And we are now used as a role model by the National Archive - which looks after government data - on how public data should be separated from commercial activities. So we are leading the way in many areas of our work.

Q. Has the Met Office moved closer to its goal of being the best weather and climate service in the world?

A. Meeting our Key Performance Indicators is vital, of course, but it's the bigger things that really move us towards being the best in the world - such as the enhancements made to our supercomputer. This year's upgrade means we can now apply more sophisticated science to our forecasting models - and we also increased the resolution of our UK forecasts from 4 km2 to 1.5 km2. This leap forward has had a huge impact on our forecasts.

While we moved closer to our goals, we were also very pleased to be recognised by the Times Higher Educational Supplement as the best geosciences research institute in the world, out of 43,200 candidates.

Q. What were the year's low points?

A. We came under severe attack from the press for some of our seasonal forecasting. While I don't think all the criticism was necessarily justified, we have learned some important lessons from it. One such lesson is it's easy to underestimate how complicated some of our messages are - and there is a need to communicate our science in the right way.

There's been a realisation that, because we work in the world of meteorology, it all seems relatively straightforward to us - but it's not necessarily so straightforward to people outside our field.

Our research with the public showed that they would prefer a monthly update rather than a seasonal forecast.

Q. The Met Office has 1,850 employees worldwide. Were any significant HR measures put in place last year?

A. We put a lot of time and effort into leadership training last year. This organisation has fantastic potential - some of which, we recognise, is still untapped. Now we're focusing on creating good leaders to release it. Of course, we continue with our training of forecasters - we have started rebuilding the Met Office College. New classrooms are helping us deliver an extended range of courses to Met Office staff as well as meteorologists from around the world.

Q. The Met Office relies heavily on IT. What progress has been made in this field?

A. Our supercomputer aside, we have really begun to sort out our back office IT systems and increase our capability in web and multimedia. Today, our website capability is really much improved. During the particularly extreme weather this winter, for example, we had 19,000,000 hits on our website in a single day. That was the highest number of hits we've ever had, and the system coped.

I'm also very proud of the iPhone app. we released at the beginning of January. This is the kind of thing a lot of organisations talk about but never do. I feel that, as a government organisation, we're really beginning to break boundaries. We haven't just created an app. that works; we've created one that works really well. So well in fact, that it went to number three in the app. charts with 74,000 downloads in the first three weeks - figures usually only achieved by games. Now we've even got advertising and sponsorship on our website - another boundary broken for a public sector organisation.

Q. What are the plans for next year?

A. We've got more upgrades to our computer coming; new streams of products coming out; and new collaborations with key universities in the UK and institutions around the world - to name just a few of our plans. As I often say, this is a fantastic organisation with so much capability. Next year we hope to tap further into that capability and take more steps towards being recognised as the best weather and climate service in the world.

Q. And finally, how would you summarise the past year?

A. Busy.

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