As someone who lives in the Path of Hurricane Harm, I tend to spend most of the storm season with my eyes glued to the television, and weather websites. Up until recently, I frequented NOAA every 2 hours looking for updates in tracks. Then I would go to the sun-setinel looking at the computer models. That was before I found Stormpulse.
Back in 2004 Matthew Wensing, and Brad Wiemerslage (currently web developers at the Palm Beach Post, creating a geospatial site), met in Chicago. As a native Floridian, while Matt was attending the University of Chicago, he was extremely concerned for the saftey of his family back home. It was during this year that Hurricane Gene and Hurricane Francis were pounding Floirda, and Matt couldn’t move himself from the information being disseminated across the web. While looking at sites like NOAA and weather.com, Matt realized there has to be a better way to provide information to the world in a more interactive format. He remembers saying to himself “I can do better then this.” Welcome Stormpulse!
Stormpulse is creating a destination on the web, where concerned people can find all information pertinent to a Hurricane. There is no reason to go to other sites. Matt has a philosophy about eating your own dog food. “if I have to go to other places on the web to get my information, then it doesn’t seem like my own site is working as well as it should”. Based upon recent feedback, it appears an increasing number of visitors to Stormpulse, no longer visit NOAA and weather.com. From their data, originally most users came as referrals from other sites. Lately all visits have been unique, which would suggest most of their visits are returning users coming direct.
Stormpulse, in 2004 was initially a php script that ran to download an xml off the NOAA site, and then redisplayed that information on their website. It would then parse it up and display it in a database. Ultimately they redisplayed it as their own custom beta structure. Matt and Brad switched to python and pylons soon after because he was learning python, and back then he had heard it was a better language. Matt says everyone has their program language preference, but after trying it out and realizing how powerful Python was. Soon after the jumped over to turbo gears, which is a frame work that merged with pylons. Now they are one framework, if you don’t use jango you probably use them. Turbogears was originally used for flash remoting so the map could talk to the server directly. You can call functions on the server like a web service. It is kind of like a natural way to interface with the database but in flash, so the flash objects call something on the server directly. Ultimately he realized he didn’t need to do that, and turbogears was abandoned, and used pylons instead. Stormpulse no longer use flash remoting, they made the switch to JSON now. The benefit was simplicity of getting it to work and ease of setup. It is the less advanced way but it works. At that point all they really wanted to do was get storm data into the map. Currently the site is hosted in the coulds at Amazon s3. They run 2 slaves, 1 master and a gateway.
This is their first action script project. They used to make little flash intros, but this is their official first. The first time they ran it and the map put the storm name on the flash part of it they were ecstatic. They were just so excited to see data coming back on the map. That was the electric moment. Now all storm data could be brought into flash and they could manipulate as they saw fit. The map is still flash, but no more remoting, just JSON.
Stormpulse has 100 different cron jobs that run on a timed basis and those different jobs do many different things. One goes to NOAA and checks their xml feed and sees if it has new data. It thenmatches it up with advisories and figures out there is a new storm. It runs every 30 minutes, since you never know when a storm pops up.
A really unique feature is the clouds feature. The ability to show the historical positioning of clouds comes from a guy that used to go to Cal Tech. He has a mosiac of all clouds on the planet and stitches them up to show. They have every 6 hour increments of clouds from 2002- 2006. Stormpulse received this data and they matched it with their own historical data. On an ongoing basis it grabs that file, piles it then breaks it down and then relates it to the storm data. Another great feature on the site, is the ability to see the probability of wind speeds for your area, even if the storm isn’t projected to affect where you live.
Since gaining traction, Matt and Brad spend very little time on a day to day basis updating storms, most of the time is spent fixing bugs and developing new features. Over the weekend they released computer models on the site. They go the data from the South Florida Water District. They get that information regularly, which consists of 10-13 models for each storm. This came in extremely handy as you can see by the above image for Gustav.
The forecast that NOAA sends out to the world is based on one person! They have years of experience, but it is kind of scary it is only one. They look at all the available data and see what they are saying, and then the forecast is put out based on one persons opinion. Neither brad or Matt are weather professionals or experts. They created the site cause they are fascinated in weather.
Their ultimate goal is to live their life, and realize that their jobs are not their ultimate calling. They just want to work and have fun and be remembered for creating great things. Matt simplified the process of automatic updates to avoid having to work 80 hours a week programming. Watching his kids grow is more important that sitting in front of a computer all day and night.
Matt and Brad started this for themselves and it has quickly turned into a “go to” site for news agencies around the world. After recently making their API key available to the public, they have already given out 145 keys. This is quite impressive for a site that is so niche, and so local. Thanks for raising the bar when it comes to covering Hurricanes guys!