Last week, the National Weather Service launched its first new website for radar imagery since the early 2000s, touting it as a “major upgrade.” The public did not see it that way.
The new radar website, which shows where it’s raining and snowing across the United States, along with other radar products, was intended to be an improvement from the legacy site, boasting a “load of new features,” according to the Weather Service.
“It displays radar images more frequently and at four times higher resolution than our previous site, shows radar imagery layered with weather watches and warnings on a dynamic map that allows zooming and scrolling, offers more radar data than before in an interactive, mobile-friendly format, and provides radar data in a more flexible GIS format,” Susan Buchanan, a Weather Service spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Many free weather apps, as well as more feature-packed paid radar apps, have had such capabilities for years, but this is the first time the Weather Service has rolled out something like this new site.
We’ve rolled out a MAJOR upgrade to our radar page at https://t.co/89cex6b3CJ! A load of new features, including...— National Weather Service (@NWS) December 18, 2020
🟢 Mobile device friendly
🟢 High resolution radar
🟢 Add radar data to your own GIS software
🟢 Display precipitation type
...and more! pic.twitter.com/qnLDxRmvOU
Buchanan said that the radar site was beta tested for 90 days and that public comments were incorporated before Friday’s launch.
But the common refrain in initial reviews is that the site is a step backward from its simpler predecessor.
“The new NOAA site is the ‘New Coke’ of the weather business,” wrote Steve Thompson, who previously worked as a traffic reporter for WTOP, a radio news station in Washington, D.C. “They abandoned an excellent product the users liked, tried to create something new, abysmally failed and went live with it anyway.”
Thompson, in an email, said that because of his troubles operating the new Weather Service site, he will now rely on MyRadar, a commercial weather smartphone app. Many people on social media said the new website was forcing them to look elsewhere for radar imagery.
Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the Weather Service, wrote in an email that a core problem is that the Weather Service is running this radar product on its own hardware rather than through cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google Cloud, which “can easily handle the bandwidth."
“I’ve demanded in writing that NWS transition these applications ... to our Cloud partners,” he wrote. “It’s part of an internal strategy I’ve laid out.”
But this transition has yet to begin for the Weather Service’s radar products, which Jacobs said are relying on 2005 technology.
From sluggishness to a challenging interface to incompatibility with certain Web browsers, social media critiques highlight a litany of issues with the website’s performance:
- “It’s a horrific user experience. Animations unusable, transparent overlays difficult to map to color scale, needs SO many things,” tweeted Dan Masi, an engineer in homeland security.
- “The new interface does not work sufficiently with Chrome/Safari,” tweeted Zack Labe, a postdoctoral climate researcher at Colorado State University.
- “It’s … literally unusable. It’s so slow and glitchy I just gave up,” tweeted Daniel Swain, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of California at Los Angeles.
The Capital Weather Gang confirmed many of these issues in its own testing of the site. For example, it took about 30 seconds for the national radar to display Monday afternoon. When refreshing the page, sometimes the radar would display, but other times just a blank map appeared. Navigating the site, particularly between local and national radar views, is not intuitive.
The challenges of operating the site were magnified among nonexpert users.
For years, Judith McGuire, a casual weather enthusiast in Chevy Chase, Md., had relied on the Weather Service’s radar loop of the Northeast to see the movement of precipitation. In an email, she described the Weather Service as her trusted source for weather information.
But she said the new radar site is a big disappointment.
“I can’t figure out how to navigate down to what I want,” she wrote. “I am overwhelmed with both unknown terms and confusing options.”
The Weather Service, part of the Commerce Department, says it takes such takes such criticism seriously.
“Our goal at the National Weather Service is to provide outstanding products and services,” Buchanan wrote. “As soon as we became aware of a performance issue after the site launched, we developed a fix, tested it and are working to implement it. … We encourage people to give it a chance, get used to the new interface, and continue to send us substantive comments on how we can further improve the site to meet their needs.”
In the meantime, many users on Facebook and Twitter have requested the Weather Service restore the old site.
Even Elizabeth Leitman, an employee at the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, tweeted about the new site: “I don’t know anyone who likes it better.”
Buchanan said the Weather Service cannot bring the old site back.
“It is not possible to restore the previous radar website because it used Flash Player, and Adobe will end support of Flash Player at the end of this month,” she wrote. “The legacy software and hardware for the original radar site reached end-of-life support and could no longer be maintained and secured.”
But the new website may be violating some of the Weather Service’s own requirements and using up scarce computing resources. At a time when the agency has floated a controversial limit to the amount of data the public can draw from its websites, the new radar site forces them to exceed its proposed quota, according to Matthew Rydzik, an applications developer at Commodity Weather Group, a private forecasting firm. This may be causing some of the slowness.
The Weather Service proposal would limit users to 60 connections per minute. Rydzik said that in testing the radar site, he eclipsed that number. His colleague, Rob Carver, tweeted that he also topped the limit when testing the radar site.
In other words, the Weather Service is requiring the public to use a website that would potentially put them in violation of its own rules for accessing data.
Buchanan said an internal analysis “concluded the change in Internet usage was not significant and was well worth transitioning the system.”
The Weather Service “has the best scientists and meteorologists in the weather enterprise,” Bruce Rose, who was previously vice president of weather systems at the Weather Channel, wrote in an email. “This does not mean they know how to create software or really have any core competency in software engineering.”
Rose said the Weather Service should have worked with partners in the private sector to build the new site. “Back to the drawing board,” he said.
For all of the criticism, some do like the new site. Dennis Mersereau, a weather writer for Forbes, praised the site’s features in an article, calling it “gloriously mobile-friendly.” He wrote that it will “provide a happy medium for folks who are tired of fuzzy radars on free apps or don’t want to spend money for access to a premium radar app.”
“The new site offers four times the number of options for users to get exactly what they want, which may take time to become familiar with and set new bookmarks,” she wrote.
This story was updated on Monday evening at 10:30 p.m. to include comments from NOAA acting administrator Neil Jacobs.