Watching the Weather Discussing the weather and the accuracy of recent forecasts is a very British habit, so it perhaps comes as no surprise that ECMWF, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, is based in Reading, just outside London.
ECMWF is an independent intergovernmental organisation supported by 34 states. It is both a research institute and an operational service, disseminating weather predictions to national meteorological services and commercial customers.
Monitoring and refining its modelling techniques and predictions is a core activity for the Centre. A central tool in this endeavour is its Weather Wall, a spectacular array of twelve screens on the wall in the ECMWF Weather Room which displays forecasts alongside actual weather events. Every day the Centre’s on-call analyst visually examines how a prediction played out in reality, providing feedback to the researchers responsible for modelling.
But alongside the discrepancies shown on-screen, the Weather Wall itself has been creating some perturbations. The restricted way in which the way the Wall handled and displayed data, plus an increasing awareness of its limitations, prompted ECMWF to seek the assistance of OCC.
‘The Wall is often used for presentations. It has large touchscreen panels which can zoom in and out, and bring up particular pictures or preconfigured groups of charts, but it was quite difficult to use, especially for non-analysts,’ explains Matt Standage, who leads the UX Design team at OCC. ‘Our mission was to rewrite the control software and we approached this using the Discovery process to clarify what was needed.’
Matt spent a day at ECMWF, talking to and observing users on the Wall, speaking both to the analysts – the main users – and to the Centre’s communications team. It soon became clear that the Wall was also potentially a big asset as a showcase for use with visitors, whether meteorologists, students or members of the public. A report highlighting the usability issues and additional requirements was followed by a user-story mapping workshop – exploring exactly how users interacted with wall and then working with a group of users and stakeholders to prioritise these tasks.
Once the requirements for the Wall had been gathered, the design phase began. Work on the wireframes was enhanced by a co-design workshop, which allowed stakeholders to collaborate and provide feedback on developments. As the technical design for new Weather Wall control also evolved, OCC developers helped to improve the API to the back-end systems.
Today, both the Wall and its control panels run on a browser. The new system is more reliable, more accessible and more flexible; it could in future run on a tablet. This development project opens the door to further development phases, to add more exciting and innovative features that exactly match ECMWF’s needs.