WIWX 9.1 - Storm Updates, Text Messaging, and Significant Storm Reports
By Justin Poublon
January 3, 2020 - 3:02 PM CST | 601 1 0
Happy New year!
Wow, it's been awhile since our last major update!
Brief update history shows that in mid-October we released WIWX 8.3 introducing the forum and discussion board. In early November WIWX 8.4 brought a new storm report tool. It's been really quiet since. We had a little bit of active weather. Thank god this quiet weather has kept the website development runway clear. The holidays are honestly the most disruptive time of the year for getting work done. I did my best to work through the Christmas and New Years though wish I could have done more. I've been pretty tired working extra hours to get this update finished before the end of the week. Overall I'm very happy with this update and excited for what this leads to in January!
This one is MASSIVE; perhaps the biggest ever...
WIWX 9.1 - The Story Behind
It was a point of emphasis for me to keep my mouth shut because it seems the more I open it about what intend to do the harder it is to actually do it. I felt like after WIWX 8.4 I didn't fully 100% deliver on what I promised...i.e the Reports Achievement System which still hasn't happened. One reason for that is ...things pop up. Higher priority things. I wanted to over-deliver with WIWX 9.1. Another thing I've learned is I have a hard time being effective in both development mode and forecasting mode simultaneously. There is a lot of pressure on the development side; given the timeline I'm on personally that by Mar 1st I want to be operating in my ideal balance state. Right now I still feel I'm missing some of the things I need. I believe in the future when there is less pressure on development I can balance this out. I see a light at the end of the tunnel (more on that at the end of the update).
We joined the short list of weather services that offer detailed weather notifications (automated & non-automated) via SMS/Text messages where you can interact with a meteorologist in real time. It's 100% optional. If you prefer to use email you may continue to do so and we will always offer that. If you want to try SMS/Text Messaging this can be setup through verification on the account page. You will need to set your notification delivery preference on the account page too. Your phone or mobile device must be able to send & receive text messages. Below is a break down of which services use SMS/Text Messaging functionality.
Below is an example of a storm update sent via SMS/Text Message. Links to view the update on our website can be found in the attachments section. NOTE - sometimes the link appears in the text but get's cut off whereby clicking through leads to missing page error on wisconsinwx.com.
We have many different notifications that use SMS/Text messaging and they all look a bit different when they hit your messenger. This includes NWS Warning Alerts, WIWX Storm Alerts, and blog posts.
You can reply "stop" to stop receiving text messages. Please note this will blacklist you. The only way to re-engage would be to reply "start". If you are blacklisted the account page will tell you. If you do not set our notification preference, fail to verify your phone number, or get blacklisted we will default back to email notifications for your account. It's nice to have both email and phone verified so you have a fall back.
We only allow one phone/mobile device number per account right now. Perhaps we can expand that in future if the demand is there.
There are many features I would like to build using SMS/Text Messaging in future updates so this is just the start. I ask for verification on the account page so that I don't waste money/time sending to emails/numbers that don't exist. Sometimes there is a simple typo. Thank you to our members! Email and Text is not cost free and to operate a high-quality system I need to pay. The membership fee made this possible and will make many more things possible in the future!
We've always had email but SMS/Text messaging is much faster and effective! If you respond to our text message it will be received and we can have a conversation. I encourage members to ask questions and interact through here over other formats. I envision people like snow removal, school districts needs a quick answer. I'm here to help! Keep in mind I am only one person and I can't always guarantee an immediate response. I tend to be out in the storm as it's occurring so prior to that is your best bet. But if you send it this route I will respond eventually.
I'm planning an automated request-response system (i.e Send "xyz" to "12345" to get unicorn pictures"). Was just too much to fit in right now. MEMBERS - Please do not share our phone number. I will get a second one to use for free/non-member purposes.
Storm Updates - First a little strategy
Here's the thing... Facebook is pretty cool. Some of what you see on wisconsinwx.com is similar to Facebook. And Facebook will always be a huge part of what we do including the free posts and content. So that's not going anywhere. The biggest problem is that Facebook is not designed to be a source of weather information. There are major issues with chronology, notifications, and delivering all which are inconsistent at best. For example; our page of 48K likes. we may only reach a few thousand followers on some of our updates. In otherwords we barely reach a fraction of the likes we have. And sometimes notifications are sent DAYS later.
And that's okay for facebook. And for most people, it's probably alright. But for people who take weather seriously like me...I know we can do better. I considered giving up on facebook to focus squarely on the website, really only to entertain the thought.. Instead I thought "let's take facebook and make it better. Facebook and wisconsinwx.com can coexist. wisconsinwx.com can be the source. For those who want more; they have it in wisconsinwx.com" So that's the strategy here and really with the whole membership service. We'll do the free stuff everybody else does for free. But there's only one wisconsinwx.com. The value is in taking one step further and going where nobody else goes.
My goal with Storm Updates was to create a system for fast, quick messaging - based around SMS/text messaging - that I can use to send weather updates en-mass and also use a source to share across the internet including Facebook. The content in these updates is FREE because it's very similar if not the same to what we do on Facebook. What makes it better is the experience. You have to be a member to get notifications. The focal point of our forecasts has always been much further out (2-7+ days). This really solidifies that 2- present day timeframe and keeps people coming to the website at all points of the forecast.
This system took a week to build and most of the work was on the admin side. For display on the website, all I needed to do was add a new template and change things around. And I'm still changing things around to get this experience right. I anticipate some changes with our storm event system as a result of this new system.
When you click through to our website you might find yourself on the feed page aka Wisconsin Storm Updates - Latest Information
. This page has been recycled and re-purposed many times. I finally feel like it's found purpose and a home. This page will also show member storm reports, recent blog posts, and more - like facebook but in chronological order. Bookmark it.
If you keep clicking through you will eventually reach the post page which also serves our blog where you can leave comments, like, and share.
Wisconsin Significant Reports Distribution List
Members can "opt-in" to a notification system that sends an SMS/text messages when SIGNIFICANT severe weather is reported anywhere in Wisconsin. Inspired by the July 2019 severe storms in northern Wisconsin. Now that I we have SMS/Text Messaging I was quickly able to implement this as envisioned. The following reports will be sent out immediately:
- WIND GUST >= 80 MPH.
- LARGE HAIL >=3.0".
How to Sign up for the Sig Reports List?
On the account page I've added a checkbox that can be checked to opt-in to the Wisconsin Significant Storm Reports Distribution List. It is set to "OFF" by default. Assuming you've verified your phone number or mobile device, you're good to go. The image below also shows the message delivery message setting at the very top.
Why is this necessary? This distributions list allows our storm chasing and spotting members who report severe weather to immediately reach our members in the event of significant severe weather. It also taps into the NWS feed though that tends to be slower. The report has to come in within 30 minutes of when it occurred and we won't send a tornado report that comes in a day late. The main thing is "immediate". Need to know information happening right now. This helps bypass the need for a warning system.
I don't think this is the final iteration of this system...there probably needs to be optimizations or changes depending on the results of a real event. I didn't want to blast your inbox via oversending so I set the significant severe weather report magnitude thresholds pretty high. It might be better to limit sends to the members specific county or region. Question is: is it effective/useful for other people beside me? We're going to find out!
Proprietary Region Selector Tool
There is a lot of really interesting stuff on this update but this one I'm most proud of. Only admins will see this is action but you will see the impact on our storm updates and future updates. I've always struggled with how to select a target audience for our notifications such as WIWX storm events. In order to do Storm Updates correctly; I knew I had to get the targeting correct. I wanted to be able to target(aka limit the audience) right down to the county or zipcode like a NWS warning or advisory would so I could limit the total number of email/txt sends to just those who it applies to.
Wisconsinwx.com has a pretty good location and member location database which includes locations, zipcodes, populations, counties, states, lakes, etc. And it's pretty easy to connect them all together in a database. The hard thing is to visualize it and mobilize it. This led me to do crazy things like html Image Map a static image with all the WIWX regions. Or ugly and hard to see checkbox group arrangements. It just sucked.
Here is what I came up with:
which I'll talk more about below. This is propriety because I built it from scratch and beside the google map; you can't find this "out of the box" anywhere. It's unique to wisconsinwx.com.
This interfaces with the WIWX Storm Events Alert settings on the account page under the Alerts tab. That's how I get your location.
I could go on forever so here are just a few of the bigger changes...
Member Forecast Getting Significant Changes
I had a big problem with how information was being display...and in many ways still is a problem. This is a step in the right direction with a lot more optimization coming/needed. The forecasting system that feeds it is an aggregate of everything going on; storm events, blog, daily forecast etc. Still searching for the best possible way to do that. I have ideas but it starts with making it readable. When our forecasting strategy is aligned this will be aligned.
NWS Warning Alert Optimization
I was able to reduce the total number of sends by 14% (365 to 317) in one test case. So if you have multiple saved locations in the same county you should only receive the same alert once. Issue was caused by duplicate member locations (for example Appleton, WI set as all three locations). The biggest thing was limiting to one send per user per county.
I'm doing my best to bring this back to a single pager with separate tabs only for notifications and membership details. I'm planning on further improving the display on the next update.
Chase Map/Report Tool
I added counties, county names, and road conditions as layers. I'm debating a change to default warnings & watches to OFF to improve responsiveness. Note with all these layers engaged you will see slower performance so I try to keep the layers to a minimum. I also fixed an issue with Day 1 outlook snow totals line color being off. I changed the thank you message display following a successful report.
Favicon - site icon has changed from a square to a circle. Fixed an issue where it wasn't displaying at all.
Feed Items Now Consistent - our reports, storm updates, blogs, etc exist in module form served dynamically. Before each page had it's own settings. Now these modules gets served from a centralized class in way that is identical and consistent across all pages. Not really a big thing but I'm proud of it.
Fixed several bugs. Here's a few.
- Fixed bug with storm reports page not showing all reports. Priority now goes to highest magnitude, member reports.
- Fixed bug with precip timing not showing on forecast page
- fixed bug with wrong datetimes on storm event verification maps
- fixed bug with like button not immediately responding while also fixing functionality that was previously not updated or broken.
- Fixed bug on blog tool admin side where parathesis in image captions would break the import media tool.
- Fixed bug where warning ETN summary graphics got distorted horizontally. Not a complete fix. Okay with a band aid for now.
I will start this by trying not to dig myself another hole lol.
On Monday Jan 6, I will begin work on our next update centered on weather forecasting systems. Specifically the daily forecast (7-day) to start. Past updates brought individual systems. i,e Storm events(aka WIWX Storm Alerts). The first iteration of the daily forecast. The blog.
I'm calling this one the humpdate...the update where I finally get over the hump of daily systematic forecasting. The challenge is that Wisconsin is a big place and the weather can vary significantly from one side to the other. How do you forecast for each place equally to high level of accuracy without creating a massive amount of busy work? I believe in effective work, not busy work. I'm only one person. How do I do this without repeating myself?
Not many meteorologists forecast for Wisconsin as a whole. I've struggled with how to do this for awhile and it's delayed me from really sinking my teeth into it. The more I think about it; the more I want to embrace the challenge. It's becoming very clear. Rather than micromanaging local 7 day forecasts; I'm going to start with figuring out the Wisconsin 7 day forecast. Overtime as resources become available I will segment down locally.
Once the daily 7-day forecasts is ironed out, I believe I have a good plan for weekly, seasonal, and monthly forecasts - their own dedicated system/s - which I expect to implement this month. Once all these pieces exist, I need to get them in alignment(aka working together complimentary to each other and not overlapping). After that I'm going to take a different approach to development. I'm shooting for a Feb 1, 2020 code freeze where development seizes and I force myself into execution mode as top priority. I think this could be a sign that initial development is mostly finished and we can move into the new chapter in wisconsinwx.com history. This will force me back into forecasting, videography, researching, and social media. Development such as bug fixes may be nessissary. And I still need to deliver on the storm reports achievements system which I plan to attack in a more relaxed approach.
Since taking on the website full time in October all I've done is development because I feel I haven't done enough. I've accomplished so much since then and starting to feel confident. I look around and don't see much missing. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're almost there guys!
Thanks for reading!