Geo-Target Weather Alerts and the Importance of Personalization

If you’re in California or one of our warmer states, the freak snowstorm that hit New England before Halloween made the area seem as remote as the moon- if we can even call any weather “freak” anymore. If last winter, when snow fell on 49 of 50 states, taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as impossible weather. Phoenix might not see a blizzard, but for the most part, all municipalities have to be prepared for whatever may come. The same goes for fire, floods, earthquakes, or tornadoes. It’s part of the time in which we live

Luckily, another part of that is mobile and other information technology. This kind of technology can change the way we prepare, plan for, and execute extreme weather plans. As a result, cities, citizens, and businesses can be ready for any kind of weather, and not be inconvenienced or endangered. The weather won’t change just because we want it to, but we can help to mitigate some of its more unpleasant or dangerous effects. Geo-target weather alerts can influence our behavior toward danger, and save lives.

If this is headed your way, wouldn’t you like a warning?
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Why We Pay Attention to Weather Alerts and Why We Don’t

A year ago, I was at a friend’s house watching a football game, when the news ticker underneath the players started to scrawl ominously about tornado warnings heading our way. We were in Chicago, where there hadn’t been a tornado in forever (they hit more rural areas), so we ignored it. Even when they cleared Soldier Field we assumed it was an overabundance of caution.

A few minutes later, though, my phone started beeping, alerting me to a severe tornado warning. Within minutes, everyone else’s phone did the same thing. I joked that it was an honor to be the first, because it meant I was clearly meant to be saved, but those jokes underscored real apprehension. Luckily (for us) it passed far to the south, but we were making plans to go to the basement. We ignored the TV, but being alerted on our phones made it more tangible and real. Weather alerts on your phone make it seem more personal, and thus harder to chuff off.

Information alters behavior, especially when it is personalized to you. Getting this alert that was so personal made a difference in our otherwise obnoxiously cavalier attitude toward what turned out to be a real threat. I also remembered how other warnings didn’t have quite the same effect.

The Danger of Overgeneralized Warnings

The other alerts I had noticed in the past were flood warnings. I was on the road at the time time, and the warnings were vague enough that I wasn’t sure if it was smart to turn back or safe to plow on. While I can’t remember specifics, I know I always assumed that it was going to be safe.

That isn’t particularly smart, but it was about playing the odds. They were talking about a general area, and though the potential danger of being wrong was greater than the reward for being right, the ease of not altering my route made it a quick decision. That’s the problem with being too vague – it doesn’t command enough attention.

In the future, though, these kind of warnings can come with much greater precision, like they did for the tornado warning. My buddy’s place was on a possible path, but my wife, who was not very far away at the time, didn’t get one. This can work the same with weather, fire, floods, rockslides- anything. If I am heading north on Highway 41 and there is flooding up ahead, or even just a flood warning specific for Highway 41, I’ll find a different route or go home. Simply hearing “flooding up north” doesn’t mean much to me. This is how geo-targeting can have a huge impact.

It might not say much about human behavior, or mine in particular, that we don’t want to think about the worst-case until we absolutely have to. But that isn’t going to change. Smartphones and other mobile devices are essentially information-delivery devices. When it comes to extreme weather and sudden disasters, the information they deliver to you could save your life.

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