If you would ask any of your Swedish friends to check the weather forecast online, the pick would likely be the Norwegian site yr.no. Even if you would suggest another site, it might still be yr.no that would be entered in the address field. Seemingly just to show off. Although I had never really thought about weather forecasting as something that was affected by the usual trend mechanisms, it almost appears as if we are facing a trend of Norwegian weather forecasting in Sweden.

It’s difficult to believe that only three years have passed since yr.no was launched. Today it seems as an everyday household name and the natural online destination for anyone who needs to stay updated about weather. Not only for Norwegians, but also here in Sweden. For me it has become a natural thing to use it; a habit. At its most, yr.no has had more than 3 million unique users a week, of which 30 % were Swedish. The Communications Adviser at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Mai-Linn Finstad, explains the reasons for this breakthrough…

– Our searchable database with forecasts for 7 million places is one of the major reasons, but above all, I think we are popular due to our open data policy which makes us the only country in Scandinavia that can run a website which gives away all weather data for free. We offer the largest XML-based weather data resource in the world, and all of it is free to use for anyone who wish to develop their own services based upon it. In Sweden yr.no is easily available because of the similarities in our languages, but we also offer the city specific forecasts in English, making our services available throughout the world. As technology progresses we also strive to make information available through mobile phones, applications, social media, etc. We will soon reach 13 500 fans on Facebook and have more than 300 000 unique mobile phone users a week.

With those 7 million places covered at yr.no, I decided to put the free search function to the test and typed some random letters in the field; u,d and r. It turned out that four Polish cities starts with Udr, and one Spanish. I also learned that there was a city called Udr in Pakistan. My pick among these cities was a Polish city named Udrzyn, and the animation showed it was 9°C and raining. I was impressed. Then I typed the same letter combination in the search field at a competing Swedish weather site …and nothing. No Udr. No Udrzyn, Udrzynek, Udrión or Udrycze.

As a member, The Norwegian Meteorological Institute receives data from the entire world through ECMWF (The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts) and WMO (World Meteorological Organization), as well as from all the Norwegian weather stations. For each 24 hours, the weather forecasts presented at yr.no get updated six times with a massive amount of data each time, about 500GB. With all this data presented at one single website, I was wondering if weather related services will be less bound to nations in the future. Mai-Linn Finstad thinks they will, but says that the quality of these services will depend on whether or not the fundamental data laws are set free. I asked Mai-Linn if the International competition of weather forecasts online in any way could be compared to the type of competition that has changed the way we, for instance, buy books.

– There is competition between the commercial weather services online. When it comes to the State meteorological institutes, the services are based on relatively sparse weather forecasts to be able to sell more detailed forecasts to whoever is willing to pay extra. What distinguishes us is that we offer all data for free and we hope that other meteorological institutes will follow our example.

From an interface design perspective it appears to be a crucial matter to find the best possible balance between information and usability when creating a weather forecast site. I reckoned that you could present thousands of weather related details and simply make the visitor drown in information. Or, you could be too simple, making the visitor leave the site with unanswered questions. How do you set the priority of where and when all this huge amount of information should be displayed to the user?

Mai-Linn again: – When such vast amounts of data should be presented the usability becomes central. We may simplify by making delimitations, and that could be problematic. For instance, some people go by the weather symbols at yr.no when finding out about the upcoming weather. These symbols don’t always give the full picture about the weather, since weather variations may exist within the time frame that the symbol is supposed to cover. The simplification becomes a challenge both for us who present the service and for the users. Finding the right balance between good usability and a satisfying amount of information is something that we work with continuously, and we believe that we will be able to improve that balance.

The talk with Mai-Linn couldn’t have happened at a more suitable time. The design at yr.no was still basically the original design, but they were just about to present their new updated design in a beta version in January 2011. What have you been trying to achieve with this new design?

– During the three years that have passed since we launched yr.no, many services have been added at the expense of usability. For our updated website we have looked at design through the eyes of usability and availability, and conducted markets surveys. Since take-off, we have had a vast cooperation with the public through a panel of 800 people as well as through surveys directed towards the users. This way we keep ourselves updated about what kind of services and functions the users request. Based on this, the navigation and interaction have improved so that the website will be better organized and easier to use. The ambition is to give the users an even better experience of yr.no during 2011.

The Norwegian Meteorological Institute is one of the two parts that cooperate through yr.no. The other is NRK, Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation. The two parts have been working together for more than 70 years to deliver weather forecasts to the Norwegians. I was wondering what role the specific Norwegian climate could have had in creating demands for a well developed forecasting service. I got a picture in my head of the fishermen working at harsh sea conditions and the people living in the freezing cold North. They must all be able to put a lot of trust in the forecasts. Could this explain why yr.no seems to be in the forefront of weather forecasting? Is it simply because they have to?

Mai-Linn: – Norwegian topography is one reason for the big interest in weather in Norway, and there is a fundamental understanding about the importance of accurate weather forecasts. The Meteorological Institute’s main mission is to secure lives and property, which is why the inhabitants must have access to the best possible forecasts at all times. We wish that anyone who visits yr.no should be able to use the services in a way that satisfies their needs.

A few weeks ago I visited my cousin to have a couple of Finnish beers and talk about all the important stuff in life. We are both fanatic discgolfers, so it was no surprise that one of us suggested a round of discgolf when the weather would allow it. “Have you checked with yr?” my cousin asked (in Swedish of course). I realized that people have stopped asking “have you checked the weather?” Now it is “have you checked with yr?” That’s quite a breakthrough for a three year old weather site.

Photo: Erik Aaseth

Photo credits rest of images: yr.no and MetLex.no

This is a post by the David Report contributor Jonas Lindberg.

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