Tuesday, October 13, 2015

After 30,000 tweets and seven years, the forecast for @chswx shows no sign of letting up

Tweeting Up a Storm

Posted by Sam Spence on Tue, Oct 13, 2015 at 6:21 AM

click to enlarge Jared Smith has developed open-source tools to automatically post National Weather Service alerts on @chswx - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Jared Smith has developed open-source tools to automatically post National Weather Service alerts on @chswx

If you've ever woken up during a storm, rolled over to check your phone and saw breaking storm updates on Twitter in the dead of night, that was probably the work of Jared Smith, the one-man weather service behind @chswx. "I can't sleep when there's a thunderstorm," Smith says. "I just get too excited."

Over the last seven years, Smith has become an indispensable source of information during severe weather in Charleston. It started in April 2008 when Smith noticed that Twitter's 140-character limit naturally lent itself to the short dispatches common in weather updates. A self-professed "weather enthusiast," Smith had been writing about local weather events for years on his personal blog, but he saw an opportunity for breaking hyper-local updates for his Charleston followers on Twitter, which was just becoming mainstream.

"This was highly experimental, especially in 2008, [to say] 'I'm going to do regular breaking weather news on Twitter.'" Smith recounts. "And as it turns out, you know, it's blown up."

After a few months of manually posting severe weather updates and directing followers to watch live analysis of area radars via Ustream, Smith incorporated his first bit of automation, a three-times daily weather forecast based on a Twitter bot operating in Charlotte, @cltweather. With routine forecasting taken care of, Smith was able to focus his energy on the tri-county area for live updates during severe weather and refining the relevant info he chooses to broadcast. A software engineer by trade, Smith also drew up a program to automatically push National Weather Service alerts immediately as they're issued. That code is available, free to the public, as open source software.

But Smith is clear on the fact that he's no substitute for the pros on TV and at the National Weather Service.

"If you want a long-term forecast, I'll send you to the folks who do the long-term forecast," says Smith, who also urges everyone to have a weather radio and have emergency alerts on their phone turned on. "I did not start it to try to one-up or anything like that. What I wanted to do was facilitate a conversation."

That conversation has continued uninterrupted since 2008 and people now count on Smith to deliver when the thunder rolls. "Has it evolved into a responsibility? Absolutely, I think so. I've got over 18,000 people looking at that account now," he says.

Smith uses tools similar to what the buttoned-up TV weathermen use on his home computer, paying out of pocket for subscriptions that drive @chswx command central. And advances in technology enable him to have most of the same cutting-edge, real-time weather data you'll see on TV. Screenshots of the local doppler radar often accompany live updates.

The most recent storm that brought more than two feet of rainfall in some areas was "easily the craziest thing that I have experienced," Smith says. "And that's saying something considering two weeks before was the craziest thing I'd ever covered." That event, the Johns Island tornado, had Smith tracking the storm even as he took cover in his suburban West Ashley home.

After pulling an all-nighter last Friday and into Saturday during the worst of the rains, watching local radars and posting updates, Smith finally shut down for a few hours at 2:30 a.m. Sunday morning.

When all was said and done, @chswx had posted more than 700 storm updates from Oct. 2-6.

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