Forecasting for African skies
6 August 2013
Access to reliable, regular weather forecasts is considered part of everyday life for many people across the globe. But what about areas of the world with less developed infrastructure? A long-standing programme by the Met Office, working in partnership with national weather services in developing countries and others such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), has helped deliver weather forecasts via television to over 40 developing countries. And one such country recently became the first to enjoy a digital upgrade.
Ethiopia was the first country to benefit from a media studio, implemented through the Met Office's contribution to the Voluntary Cooperation Programme (VCP) when, 20 years ago, technicians installed a custom made mini studio at the National Met Agency (NMA) in the capital. Then, at the end of 2012, another first: Ethiopia's NMA was given a digital upgrade for their media studio. Met Office Media Consultant Dave Robinson and Studio Manager Steve Fallon were there, on-site in Addis Ababa, to implement the improvements.
"We were there for 10 days and began by stripping out the old studio equipment to replace it with newer equipment," says Steve. "We then moved onto replacing the analogue tape system with a digital recording system that provides high quality recordings with a streamlined production process and reduced running costs."
The upgrade enables the Ethiopian National Met Agency to broadcast weather reports far closer to the time they are recorded, using the free internet delivery service, DropBox. This is a huge improvement to the service as previously, broadcasting the weather involved transporting videotaped forecasts across the city's congested roads to the national TV station - a process that would routinely mean a one hour round trip.
And that was just the beginning because getting forecasts out to regional stations could mean journeys of 100 km or more, along roads of varying condition. This made it impossible to guarantee daily forecasts, despite rural communities often being the most at risk from extreme weather events.
When time is of the essence
Using DropBox as a delivery tool makes it possible to give the people of Ethiopia more frequent forecasts much more reliably, which is a huge help for their day-to-day life. But the speed of delivery has further advantages including alerting the public to severe weather conditions in good time and even cost savings for the NMA through reduced use of fuel.
"We provided training on how to use the new technology and how to make the most of our weather graphics system, WeatherEye."
TV broadcasts are complemented by radio versions, which also benefited from the upgrade. Not only can the files be emailed, but also a high-quality studio microphone ensures a clearer, more professional end result. Of course, providing a great service is about more than equipment.
"We provided training on how to use the new technology and how to make the most of our weather graphics system, WeatherEye," says Steve.
WeatherEye makes forecasts more accessible via slick animated sequences and graphics that include weather symbols, 3D maps and wind speeds. It is the preferred system for many TV broadcasters in the UK and is used on the ITV News and Daybreak. Its simple, interactive system proved popular in Ethiopia too:
"We had the opportunity to meet with the directors - the key decision makers," explains Steve. "Once they saw what we could do with our graphic software, they were blown away."
Ethiopia won't be the sole country to benefit from this kind of upgrade. Dave is running a media workshop in Kenya this June and visiting Dominica later this year. What's more, national weather services across Africa will converge on Nairobi for training on WeatherEye, digital production workflow and, very importantly, branding. Having greater brand awareness is vital for national weather services in different countries to attain greater self-sufficiency. Being able to brand their service specifically for their audience - encompassing all the cultural nuances of the region - opens up greater commercial opportunities.
Back at base camp
Support continues back at the Met Office headquarters in Exeter too, via the website www.met-elearning.org/ moodle, which Steve describes as "an online reference for technical help and assistance, complete with forums." It's also a resource to help developing countries communicate with each other.
While further developments will rely, in part, on the infrastructure of Ethiopia and improving the speeds and dependability of the internet, the upgrade to the system has instantly improved the quality and professionalism of broadcasts. Thanks to their work through the VCP, the Met Office will continue to roll out its programme of weather media upgrades to the countries that need it most.
The VCP in detail
The Voluntary Cooperation Programme (VCP) is run by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a specialised agency of the United Nations made up of 191 members.
Its aim is to enhance weather and climate services worldwide and, ultimately, aid sustainable development. This ranges from supporting the collection of weather and climate observations to university fellowships and the effective dissemination of weather forecasts and warnings to the public. The Met Office's and UK contribution to the VCP comes from the government-funded UK public weather service (PWS).