The Startup Saga, Part I: Weather information is free?

The amount of weather information being collected and circulated on the Internet these days boggles my mind. Much of this collection is done by the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), parent of the National Hurricane Center (NHC), the source drawn upon my most of our website’s features. Since the NOAA is a government agency, all of that information is immediately in the public domain. This is the upshot, and this also makes us happy because it made it possible to start a weather website with relatively little initial capital. [1]

But there’s also the downside (or, as I would later discover, the opportunity). Because the NOAA is a government agency and the government has been interested in weather for a very long time (largely to support the operation of the military), much of the data that gets shipped around the Internet gets packaged in arcane, Mainframe-era formats (example), and the graphical displays are usually rather dated:

NHC Tropical Outlook

Before the summer of 2004 I never really thought about either of these facts: that weather data is abundant and free, and that weather data is often trapped inside formats that make it illegible to all but the most die-hard enthusiasts. It was back in 2004 that I discovered the first fact: that I could simply go right out on the web and get storm track data back to 1851 with a relatively simple Google search. With a little bit of parsing (at that time with PHP) I had myself a searchable, sortable database. [2]

And to me, the track data contained more than just numbers. The numbers told stories (888 millibars!) [3], and names like Andrew, Mitch, and Floyd brought back memories of tracking storms during my childhood and young adult years in South Florida [4]. With all due respect, none of the sites I was visiting at the time really seemed to make the data sing the same tune of anticipation and excitement that surrounds the live event of a tropical cyclone forming and churning across the Atlantic.

Of course, the goal for me at the time wasn’t to make the data sing. The goal was just to have a live feed of data on the storms as they developed. It was a challenge for me as a novice programmer, and there was just something satisfying about seeing the updates come out from the NHC and then minutes later being able to refresh on my little computer and see . . . new data!

It would be a year or two before the second fact—that weather information is often locked in painfully-confusing formats, would finally dawn on me as an opportunity; in the meantime, I had lots of data to scrape, parse, and mine for the fun of it, and Stormpulse [5], a few little scripts on top of a couple of database tables, had been born.

Notes:

[1] Stormpulse, Inc. is a VC-free establishment (for now).

[2] While the thought that the core of our data is entirely free once scared me, I now embrace it. After all, I heard that Amazon.com got started off a free list of ISBN numbers, but who’s going to replace them now?

[3] To be honest, I was too young to remember the millibars, but seeing the data brought back some vivid memories: that my Dad’s co-worker was in the Yucatan when it hit, and that we still have the VHS tape of the satellite image progressions shown on the evening news. I can still see the intense red and orange surrounding the eye as it passed through the Caribbean, and the word ‘Gilbert’ scrawled on the label.

[4] You’re right, of course; neither Mitch nor Floyd hit South Florida. But I had a good friend from Honduras whose family and friends were in Mitch’s path of devastation, and Floyd . . . well, can we understate the importance of the Bermuda high?

[5] At the time, I called it ‘Canewatch’. It was written in PHP with an XML document for a UI. :-)

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3 comments so far

  1. […] ultimate landfall). For those of you interested in startups, you may want to read more about our beginnings here at […]

  2. […] II: The Python discovery and the early grind Posted June 27, 2007 The previous post left off with Stormpulse having been cobbled together from a very large text file and a few lines […]

  3. […] behind a hurricane-tracking web site did it, check out the latest post on the Stormpulse blog: The Startup Saga, Part I: Weather information is free? Start spreading the news: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share […]


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