"Dark Sky" Reinvents Weather Apps With Hyper-Local Forecasts

Powered by fine-grained data viz, the Kickstarter-funded iOS app will tell you whether it will rain eight minutes from now, not eight days from now.

What is it with these innovative weather apps lately? I wouldn’t have thought this useful-but-boring space would be so attractive to designers and developers, but here’s another one that really raises the bar: Dark Sky, an app that turns the whole user experience of weather forecasting on its head by offering ultra-precise, personalized predictions that are only good for the next hour.

The design insight of Dark Sky’s developers is almost Jobsian: I never knew I wanted an app that could tell me whether it was going to rain eight minutes from now, but now that it exists, it seems not only essential, but totally boneheaded that no one invented it before. As Jack Turner and Adam Grossman, the two guys (two guys! Where you at, The Weather Channel?) behind Dark Sky, explain in their Kickstarter video, a whole lot of our interest in the weather has to do with what’s about to happen very, very soon in a very, very small area of interest. For example: you’re running out to pick up the Sunday paper from your corner bodega, and the sky above your neighborhood looks gloomy. Are you going to get rained on in the next 10 minutes or not?

Dark Sky answers this question with two ingenious visualizations. First, a chart at the bottom of the screen predicts the likelihood of precipitation with down-to-the-minute accuracy, using GPS to pinpoint your exact location. Second, a full-screen map shows the big picture of the local weather, much like standard Doppler radar—except instead of displaying herky-jerky images that only refresh every 10 minutes, Dark Sky interpolates the radar data to generate a smooth animation of how the weather system is behaving in the near future. You can even scrub the display back and forth in time to watch the radar pattern evolve.

So again: How could two dudes in upstate New York out-innovate behemoths like Accuweather and The Weather Channel? Adam Grossman tells Co.Design that an app like Dark Sky wouldn’t have been possible even just a few years ago, "but not because the technology didn’t exist. Rather, there is this whole 'hidden infrastructure’ that is just now coming in place, and is ripe for this sort of product." Things like ubiquitous smartphones with high-quality displays and built-in GPS; cloud computing resources that can be rented and scaled ad hoc without the need to invest in physical hardware and IT staff; open-source algorithms for computer vision and machine learning that aren’t bound up in academia or corporate labs, so anyone can tinker with and build on them; and, of course, creative funding platforms like Kickstarter, which let innovators crowdsource financial resources quickly instead of waiting for grants or venture capital to come through.

Dark Sky’s technology and interaction design are brilliant, but part of me wonders if it focuses on the visual too much. The gorgeous infographics impart a ton of information and look great on an iPad. But if I’m invoking Dark Sky’s magic prediction skills (which are only accurate an hour into the future, according to Turner and Grossman) on my iPhone while on the run, I may be more interested in a quick text-based summary: "In eight minutes it’s going to rain", or something like that, which gets to the point immediately and reports back exactly what I want to know, Siri-style. But that’s just quibbling. Dark Sky looks pretty amazing already, so head over to Kickstarter and help them reach their funding goal.

[Read more about Dark Sky]

[Image: Flickr user Ronny Stiffel]

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5 Comments

  • Jaimie

    Hey John I"m a golfer and something like this will be really useful. But, you'll have to pit Dark Sky against this other app called RainAware. I saw a test version and it's amazing how much goes into it to make it work. For example, it filters out false radar echoes, and knows the difference between rain aloft vs rain actually hitting the ground. It can even handle storms that are moving in a different direction than the rest of the precipitation. I don't know for sure but I think it'll be out soon.

  • Nick Piesco

    Meteorologist here -- saying they've 'out-innovate[d] behemoths like Accuweather and The Weather Channel' is more than a bit generous. Dark Sky uses a straight-up extrapolation of current radar data, ignoring the fact that showers and storms strengthen, weaken, and change direction. This results in output whose levels of inaccuracy can range anywhere from slightly inconvenient to downright dangerous -- yes, even within the next hour. Very short-range computer models exist for this sort of thing (used by the 'behemoths' you mention), but there's no mention of them being incorporated into the app.

    I will say, though, that the visualisation is very cool, and the interpolated radar data looks sweet -- I'd be interested to see how it scales up once it goes nationwide. That's a *lot* of data.

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