Come rain, come shine

Come rain, come shine

MetService is more than just a weather forecaster - its Weatherscape division develops technologies for the daily bulletins of BBC and TV3.

Marco Overdale, Weatherscape director, reveals how it keeps innovative projects going, and why "weather groupies" keep an eye on them. As late as 15 years ago, viewers of BBC's weather bulletins were treated to unexpected sightings - like magnetic symbols falling off the screen while the presenters were pointing at them. True, weather programs in New Zealand were a little better, although TV3 admits its own graphics were "flat, uninteresting and old-fashioned".

As TV3 weather producer Alison Harley puts it, "Programs had inflexible formats, despite changing weather and the programs essentially consisted of a presenter reading off facts and figures almost like radio."

But if these days weather bulletins of BBC and TV3 feature graphics that look like they came straight out of a virtual reality game, this is due in large part to innovations from Weatherscape.

Weatherscape is a fast-growing division of the state owned enterprise MetService, and is headed by Marco Overdale, former MetService CIO.

MetService has actually been making weather forecasting graphics for over 10 years, providing clients globally including the BBC. Its other users include Channel 9 and the Weather Channel in Australia, TV4 in Ireland and CNBC.

The first version of Weatherscape came out in 1994, with TVNZ as an early user. Prior to this, TV channels used static charts and forecasts provided by the local MetService office.

Overdale says TV3 beta-tested the new Weatherscape XT Technology, while the BBC went for a more ambitious nationwide rollout of the same system involving 16 regional stations in time for its 50th anniversary of TV weather forecasts in May 2005.

Weatherscape won the BBC contract following an international tender. The UK-based channel is familiar with MetService's products as these have been featured in industry exhibits in Las Vegas and Amsterdam.

TV3 also checked out overseas-based systems, but found them either too expensive or inflexible. Other systems could only cope with international data and ignored New Zealand's Pacific location. Weatherscape XT uses models that accounted for the effects of New Zealand's island landmass.

Under the old system, TV3's Harley says data was phoned or faxed from MetService each night and the figures copied onto pre-made background graphics by a graphics artist. An operator in the studio will recall these graphics and match then with a script written by the presenter.

This system had limitations because it was time- consuming to make late changes and labour costs were substantial. The graphics, on the other hand, were basically just "stills" with no movement or 3D effect. Increased "handling" of data meant errors were more likely, says Harley.

Now, Weatherscape takes data from the computer models and turns this into computerised animations. MetService sends the forecast data over high speed internet linked to TV3's Auckland based-server. The data can be then be amended in real-time.

"The 'show' for the presentation is selected by the presenter who can change the durations, the movements and graphic elements. Thus, there are innumerable options that can be created and used when telling the weather story of the day," explains Harley.

"While TV3 uses a limited number of these graphics in its 6pm show, the options for future programs are limitless."

TV3 launched its new service in 2004, delaying the launch some months because the beta test for the XT system "had its moments in the early days".

"A live television program requires a complex number of back-up arrangements with double redundancy at every part of the system," says Harley. "The weather presentation is done live and it cannot be delayed by even a second because the news programs cannot run over duration. This caused some unplanned hardware issues.

"But apart from some early teething problems and a couple of minor software issues, the system has been incredibly reliable, providing complex data and graphics 365 days a year and even coping with daylight saving and power cuts!"

TV3 believes the Weatherscape system is an achievement for MetService, as it reinforces its ability to sell the system overseas while maintaining its core business of forecasting. "They've done it by being innovative, listening to customers, and then having the confidence to know their product was a world beater," says Harley.

The battle for Britain

While it has clients across the globe, BBC is MetService's biggest prize. To help land the work, Dutch-born Overdale, with over 30 years in IT, shed his CIO role for MetService to successor Russell Turner two years ago and concentrated on Weatherscape as director.

The outward-looking role involves working with the marketing team, setting up the displays, selling the product, supporting external customers, as well as answering to the MetService board, which includes chief of advanced technology, Dr Neil Gordon. Overdale was in charge of a team that grew to 16, mainly developers, a number now reduced to 13.

Over the past four to five years, Weatherscape has been redeveloped to be more user friendly. It was developed in C++ and Windows-based Open GL for output to TV and the web.

Other technologies include Invidia graphics and output to TV using serial digital interface. "We have significant market potential for the product worldwide. We are continuing to develop it. I am now heading the development team responsible for Weatherscape. I look after the development of new functions, facilities and features," says Overdale.

He says one of the things the BBC wanted was 24-hour availability, with much updating done automatically and able to cope in a distributed environment. While the main forecasts come from Broadcasting House in London, the BBC has 24-hour satellite channels and some 16 regional centres, each providing a regional view.

"They wanted a system where each local centre has access to the same data, universal access to the same weather shows and updates at the same time. They also wanted a new look and 'big bang' across 16 centres on the same day," Overdale recalls.

Thus, on 16 May 2005, the new-look weather shows appeared on the BBC channels and website. Despite MetService staff being on-site, the UK launch was not a resounding success.

People disliked the 'brown look' the BBC gave to the UK landscape or the fact that Scotland suddenly looked a lot smaller than in previous shows.

"There were and are weather groupies in the UK," explains Overdale. "They share their views with each other in various weblogs and bulleting boards. They got wind of the fact there was a new system coming soon and these people have a view on how it should look. Some people thought it should be different."

Some 8000 comments were received out of a national population of 60 million people, he explains, putting the issue into context. And it was the BBC itself that chose to make Britain brown, rather than green, to make the graphics look clearer.

Furthermore, Weatherscape maps typ-ically use the Mercator projection system for maps, so northerly latitudes, like Scotland, appear smaller than in previous 'flat' charts.

But for Overdale, what mattered was the software showed where it would rain and where it would be fine. The BBC design also aimed to focus on the larger population centres, which tend to be in the south.

However, changes were made in the graphics. The graphic for Scotland was enlarged. England was once more a green and pleasant land. Surveys showed the forecasts have become more popular.

"When changing something after 30 years, people will complain. The system we provided, displaying information received from the weather centres, will not make forecast more accurate. It's an improvement of how forecasts are portrayed, by making the weather look more realistic."

Planes, eyeballs and share prices

As a state-owned enterprise, MetService has to earn its keep, and try and raise income from its intellectual property. Thus, as well as producing similar graphics-based weather systems for pilots, its Metra division supplies graphics for newspaper weather reports, TV guides, sports results and share prices.

"When we became an SOE in 1992, we looked at the products we made. Was it for business use e.g. fire service, councils, roading authorities and the public? We asked if this was the best information we could provide in a way that the company can understand," Overdale explains.

"We started to look at the graphical tools that were available at the time. We concentrated on newspapers. Their maps were hand-drawn black and white synoptic charts changed to computer generated isobars and wind maps. Definitely visual presentation was a priority. We also looked at language. Saying 'moderate' is based more on experience than giving wind speeds.

"We started talking with people about TV weather graphics. We started out with a group of developers who were interested in gaming. We use some techniques from extreme programming. We are methodology averse, trying to get the good aspects of extreme and peer programming," he explains.

"The whole area of improvement is the ability to get the message, through visual languages and web technology. Computer gaming technology has been part of the success factor for this company."

This led to the recent Dunedin Wind Shear project - a study of the weather that affects airport take-off and landings - and which is now part of the services MetService provides for airlines.

MetService modelled a number of past incidents using its high resolution forecast model and established the model could estimate possible wind shear. Now, the system can provide alerts to aircrews when difficult wind shear conditions become likely before a plane is about to land.

The system is similar to one made for the Hong Kong Airport and it earned the SOE a Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport Award for Safety and Innovation.

"We also built a system to deliver weather information to aircraft operators. There is a legal requirement to have weather information before you take off. This WeatherTrak service has been sold to several airlines including Air New Zealand.

"It delivers weather to the company system on-site. They are able to print the weather on demand to the pilots. That has been superseded. We now sell aviation-based packages by software-based subscriptions, accessing information via the web."

Indeed, it is sales of Weatherscape and related technologies that is the immediate focus for Overdale, who has spent 20 years at MetService, joining as electronic data processing manager before becoming IT manager and then CIO.

His previous work included roles at the Department of Statistics, a New South Wales Bank, an oil company in Saudi Arabia and the National Library of New Zealand, where he set up a "bibliographic net service", before joining MetService in 1986.

"Other companies outside New Zealand are interested in taking our products. We are investigating other areas for making services using the technology to get the whole message out there."

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