BBC Spotlight Weather Maps

Figure 1 – Courtesy of BBC Southwest

I’ve been in Devon for 15 years this year and have always paid close attention to the local weather forecast on BBC Spotlight Southwest news bulletins. What’s always been a frustration to me is the rather larger than required maps that they choose to use (fig 1).  I don’t see any reason why for example that the map should extend as far as 52° north to display the bottom third of Wales and the coast of southern Ireland for instance. This is a local forecast for local people in Cornwall, Devon, and the west of Somerset and Dorset, the national forecast provides information if you’re planning to travel out with the southwest.

Here’s what I think would make a much better scale map of the region that the forecast is specifically for. Apologies to David Braine for cutting him out and superimposing on this OpenStreetMap (fig 2)!

Figure 2 – Courtesy of BBC Southwest (last nights 18-06 minimum temperatures)

Before you write in and complain and say that I’ve forgotten about the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands, there is no reason why this map shouldn’t pan west east, and north south to reveal these areas, but this would be the default scale of the map. With this kind of detail high-resolution model data could colour contour extreme temperatures much more effectively than with the crude model they overlay now, and we might then be able to capture frost hollows such the one at Exeter Airport, which the Met Office model seems to have missed once again last night.

Television and the many ways we can view weather forecasts has come along way since the introduction of the current graphics system at the BBC in 2005. We now have high-definition and 4k television, cathode ray tubes are a thing of the past and 50″+ flat screen televisions are common place. The introduction of a new weather graphics system is long overdue, and hopefully MeteoGroup will seize this opportunity to improve the mapping they use, at the same time making use of higher resolution NWP data to overlay on it. My guess is that when the new service starts this spring it will only replicate the current graphics, hopefully I am proved totally wrong!

Guardian: BBC extends Met Office weather contract due to delays in switch to rival

Figure 1 – Courtesy of The Guardian

The big question that I have in this fiasco that seems to have been dragging on for years is:

Just who will provide the raw NWP data that Meteogroup will use in their new state-of-the-art graphics solution?

If it’s to be Met Office NWP data, all I can imagine is been the price that the Met Office have been demanding for it that’s been the sticking point. It’s well-known that the Met Office are very restrictive in publishing our NWP data on the Internet. I imagine that up until now Meteogroup have made extensive use of free American GFS model data in most of their products, and you can understand if they stump up millions a year to use Met Office model data, how they might like to use it in other commercial services that they have, perhaps for use in other countries across Europe. If the use of Met Office data is restricted for use with only the BBC, that would mean that Meteogroup will have to run dual NWP systems, which might be a bit of headache at times, especially as the two models can differ markedly after T+36.

We will know more next March, that’s if they can stick to this timetable. All that I can say is that there is a lot of expectation riding on this new Meteogroup service, lets hope when it finally does take off, it’s all been worth the effort on the BBC’s part.

What exactly is going on with the BBC’s weather service?

Its been over a year now since MeteoGroup won the bidding process to take over the running of the Weather forecast on BBC radio and television. In August 2016, Nigel Charters, a project director at the BBC promised that these services would ‘hit your screens, from mobile to television, in Spring next year’ (fig 1). Well, Spring has gone, and so has summer, and now we’re in ‘meteorological’ Autumn, but we are still stuck with the same old BBC graphics, and not the state-of-the-art graphics system as promised by MeteoGroup, and as far as I can see we are still using forecast model data supplied by the Met Office.

Figure 1 – Courtesy of the BBC

So what’s gone wrong?

It’s impossible to say with any certainty, because the BBC and MeteoGroup are both keeping schtum about:-

  • What the new graphics will look like.
  • When the new graphics will start.
  • Who exactly will provide the ‘multiple sources of meteorological data’ (see (2) in fig 1).

If you take a look at the MeteoGroup website they have remained tight-lipped about the whole subject since the news that they had been awarded the contract (fig 2).

Figure 2 – Courtesy of MeteoGroup

Graphics System

MeteoGroup seem keen to get started with their own graphics system, which I understand is not an in-house solution, but one that they buy in from WeatherscapeXT from MetraWeather in New Zealand, although I am not even 100% certain about that. As far as I know MetraWeather provides the current graphics system that the BBC have been using for the past 10 years or more. If that’s so, I can’t see that the slowness in switching is down to the new graphics system itself, but more likely to do with the sourcing of the model data that it uses, and what exactly the visualisation of that data will look like, in particularly the mapping. I hope that we have seen the end of 3D fly throughs, which pardon the pun, never really took off in my opinion.

Forecast model Data

MeteoGroup promise ‘better weather forecasts and solutions’, which to me is the most interesting feature of this whole debacle. If they are not going to use UKMO data, and as far as I know can’t use the ECMWF model commercially, that would just leave the ubiquitous American GFS model. I suppose it’s not outside the realm of possibility that MeteoGroup could decide to buy in some cut-price model data in a deal with the French or Germans. The strengths of the various models was recently put to the test in the Caribbean, forecasting the tracks of hurricane Harvey and Irma, some models perform much better than others. The GFS is primarily built to serve North America, and unlike the UKMO model is not tweaked for an island in the eastern Atlantic. So what happens in the future if the GFS model fails to deepen a low as markedly as the UKMO model does, and on the strength of which, the Met Office issue Amber alerts for storm force winds?

So has anything actually happened?

Well, I suppose that all the weather presenters are now no longer working for the Met Office but the BBC, and some of the old lags have been replaced by women presenters to balance the male-female ratio. I did write back in April that the takeover was imminent, and I suppose that it has happened. But rather awkwardly both for the BBC and MeteoGroup nothing visually has changed, if anything the Met Office have come out of this rather well even if they did lose the contract, their recent national weather video service that’s produced using their new VisualEyes graphics system, which they push out on their website and over social media is rather good.

WeatherscapeXT from MetraWeather

Figure 1 – Courtesy of MetraWeather

I wrote something a few weeks ago saying that the MeteoGroup takeover of the BBC contract was imminent. I wondered about what the graphics would look like but never thought to look at who MeteoGroup have teamed up with to supply the graphics. It’s a New Zealand concern called MetraWeather, who have as far as I know, been responsible for supplying the BBC with the current system for the last 10 years or so. Looking on their website they are all excited about something that they call Weatherscape XT black edition™ (fig 1). If the screenshot their promotional video is anything to go by it looks to be a step up from the existing graphics software in use at the BBC, isobars seem to be light blue on a dark blue sea, but the colours I’m sure are totally configurable. This is what they say about it courtesy of their website:-

  • Compelling graphics
    Weatherscape XT’s powerful graphics terrain engine and weather animation effects deliver beautiful rendered; full-screen graphics in real-time
  • Complete customization
    The powerful design tools integrated into Weatherscape XT enable your graphic designers to create unique weather presentations that reflect your programming style, and compatibility to both your brand guidelines and those of your sponsors and advertisers
  • High-quality maps
    Weatherscape offers designers both stylized and realistic location-specific maps at standard resolutions of between 15 to 300 metres ensuring crystal-clear, accurate rendering. The big question is – can they fix the projection that’s been shrinking Scotland for the last 10 years?
  • Rapid data updating
    At the core of Weatherscape XT is the capability to rapidly receipt and update data inputs from radar, gridded model data, satellite imagery, lighting data, local observations, typhoon tracks, and warnings and alerts provided by non-meteorological data providers warning of events such as tsunami, forest fires and volcanic activity. By the way it’s lightning and not lighting – I kid you not!
  • Powerful data editing
    Weatherscape XT is uniquely configured to enable broadcasters to edit and interpret meteorological data such as gridded model fields, observations, forecasts and warnings, or to create custom forecasts for special events including elections, sports tournaments and live performances. 
  • Data management
    MetraWeather customer engineers have vast experience in configuring Weatherscape XT to automatically and continuously ingest and manage data provided from both global and regional meteorological data suppliers 
  • Content for all screens
    Weatherscape XT is easily configured to automatically output weather graphics and content for all broadcast and online channels including highly successful weather presentation solutions for proprietary streaming media, kiosks, and connected mobile and tablet devices.

MetraWeather is of course a subsidiary of MetService, the now privatised New Zealand Met Office, and this weather graphics system was probably built by their own team of programmers. I’m guessing (and I could be wrong), that the Met Office didn’t do that with their new weather graphics engine VisualEyes™, they always seem to prefer playing it safe, and teaming up with an outside concern to do the development, rather than doing it themselves in-house, which is a great pity, especially for the IT staff. None of this kind of development is rocket science and hasn’t been done before, it just needs someone with a clear vision of what they want to achieve, and of course a team of talented developers to get it done.

Will the BBC graphics look like this?

One of my readers after reading my article about NWP Web viewers has kindly pointed me to one that the MeteoGroup are trialling at the moment. It’s called MeteoEarth and it’s very ‘Google Earth’ like with a spinning globe, although you can display ‘flat’ maps. There are a number of basic overlays available, but they are just that quite basic, and the contoured pressure overlay does need further work to look right. It might be early days for their web application, because that’s what it really is, perhaps this is some kind of test bed. They seem to be encouraging people to embed MeteoEarth into their own websites, and you can also hook up to social media through various buttons. It makes me wonder if it resembles in any way the graphics engine that they are planning to use when they take over the BBC contract very shortly.

Figure 1 – Courtesy of MeteoGroup

The info box makes interesting reading as well…

Figure 2 – Courtesy of MeteoGroup

They are making use of global ECMWF data in the MeteoEarth, wouldn’t that be a turn up if they did the same thing at the BBC! I can’t see this happening somehow, especially the political ramifications of using European NWP data in preference to Met Office NWP data when, we are just about to begin the Brexit negotiations.

BBC weather takeover imminent

The takeover of the BBC weather contract by MeteoGroup must be imminent if it’s to happen this spring as promised. I’ve read recently that Meteogroup are going to provide the graphics for the new service, and I wonder if they are of the same standard that they push out on their Twitter account. It seems that the Met Office are using all forms of social media including Twitter to show of their new graphics engine – Visual Cortex. If these couple of examples I have included from their respective Twitter accounts are anything to go by (figs 1 & 2), I think I much prefer the graphics and animations from the Met Office than those of MeteoGroup, which do look a little dated. Corporately, I think that the Met Office are still smarting after being dropped by the BBC, it’s quite obvious from how they’ve upped their game in the last couple of years on social media.

Figure 1 – Courtesy of MeteoGroup
Figure 2 – Courtesy of the Met Office

Of course MeteoGroup could surprise us, and have their own new bespoke graphics engine ready to go from the start, or maybe getting that in place and tweaked has delayed the takeover. It seems that all the various staffing changes concerning the presenters in London have now taken place, and all we are waiting for now is the big switchover.

For some reason this article is the most popular one that I’ve ever written. Now, five months later, I’ve written a new article with the latest news about the takeover, the graphics system and the model data that they intend to use.

Do you watch the weather with the volume down?

Figure 1 – Courtesy of the BBC

Do you watch the weather with the volume down? I would just like to admit for the record, that when I watch the weather forecast on the BBC (I rarely watch ITV weather), it’s more often than not with the volume on mute. Yes, I know it’s very childish but I can’t help it, perhaps it has something to do with some kind of weird syndrome that I have, although I occasionally relent for presenters like John Hammond.

Why do I do it? Well to be honest, and as most of you know, I am pretty outspoken, and I do like to voice any criticism of the forecast or how it’s been presented directly to the TV set, almost as if the presenter is in the same room. I’ve found that this, and the occasional blaspheming that sometimes accompanies it, puts a strain on our marriage, and it’s just safer to listen in silence, because at least then I can’t complain about something that I can’t hear, but that still leaves the graphics, or the forecast temperatures to have a go at, and believe me I do!

On that point of ‘why do I bother watching at all’, it’s probably because at present the BBC is the only place that I can see the latest NWP model data that the Met Office generate. As most of you know, the Met Office jealously guard all its detailed NWP model data, and it’s not readily accessible in any detail from the Internet. This could change if MeteoGroup, who are imminently poised to take over the BBC contract decide to make use of free GFS data from the Americans rather than buy it from the Met Office. It would be perfectly possible for them to run the service without Met Office NWP data. Of course, but they would also require climatological and observational data, satellite imagery, weather radar, and SFERIC data, and for that they still might require the help of the Met Office.

It will be interesting to see what changes MeteoGroup may introduce when they take over in the next few weeks, perhaps it will be more dynamic and somehow brighter, but the presenters won’t change, and the BBC will want to make the transfer as seamless as possible, so you might be hard pressed to notice any change apart from the logo at the start (fig 1).

There is one place that will not change data provider this Spring though, and that’s the daily video forecast from the Met Office site itself. The graphics are pretty good, and apart from certain map projections that squash Scotland, and the way the new graphics engine render fronts (you see I’m at it again), it’s usually very good (fig 2). Who knows, the way television is migrating, or should that be mutating, from a terrestrial broadcast service to an internet streaming service, this is how we’ll watch TV and weather forecasts in the future.

Figure 2 – Courtesy of Met Office (you’ll notice it was muted)