Notes from WELD's Laboratory
It Saves Lives — Is Avalanche Danger ‘News’ Worth Funding?
If you’re intrigued by the ideas described here, visit our Knight Foundation News Challenge application and take a few actions described at the end of the post.
Swings in weather and irregular snowfall patterns made this one of the worst-ever years for avalanche danger in Utah, and conditions were similar in other areas of the country.
There were unfortunately tragic consequences, as well.
As of the writing of this post, there have been 29 avalanche fatalities in the US this winter, from Alaska to Wyoming to California to Utah to Montana to Colorado and Washington. They include some high-profile accidents, such as the November death of professional skier Jamie Pierre in Utah and the death of 3 skiers in one slide in Washington.
These incidents highlight the importance of avalanche danger forecasting and a network for getting that information to backcountry enthusiasts, which include snowshoers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, in addition to skiers. While backcountry recreationalists usually get the headlines, this info is also critical for managers and patrollers of ski resorts and, believe it or not, the government departments that manage highways that run through mountainous areas.
Each state has an avalanche center staffed by dedicated and extremely knowledgeable personnel, and this avalanche warning info is available and broadcast in a variety of ways. However, even those forecasters will concede that it’s difficult to gather as much study as they need, and it’s hard to get their advisories to everyone who should hear them.
Furthermore, although these snow scientists are well aware of new, improved technology and networks that could address this gap in communication, the funding and specific expertise to put it all together is hard to come by.
What would they wish for?
Here are some concepts that describe their vision:
- A mobile application could allow forecasters to file reports faster, and more of them. Many already shoot photos and video with their phones, but they have to take pencil notes in the field and hustle out of the backcountry to the office to type everything up, then put it on the website, then send the email, then publish a link via Facebook and Twitter, and then hope that conditions haven’t changed too much in the meantime. A well-designed application and database system could make that reporting and broadcasting a “one-stop” experience and enable it from anywhere the forecaster can get a cell signal.
- Sending reports to all these different networks accommodates the users’ preferences for how they like to receive information. It would also enable users to dive deeper through seamless connections — a Twitter follower of an avalanche center could quickly follow a link to a YouTube video or to the website or Facebook post of the advisory, where other mobile users are already adding their observations in response.
- Incorporating GPS data into the reporting media would mean even more specific and accurate forecasts. Avalanche danger can change with very subtle differences in altitude or slope aspect. Geo-tagged photos and field reports would give users an extra layer of information to aid their travel decision making.
- Travelers could also benefit from such a tool. They, too, could easily submit observations of snow conditions or report avalanche activity. Like many mobile applications, “push notifications” — alerts sent right to their phone without having to request it — could alert them to changers in danger level or incidents in their area.
- “Geo-fences” — an invisible boundary that only the mobile device would sense, without the user having to read a map — could be developed that not only let users know they’re in an area of potential danger, but tell them the field report history of that area and link to tips on navigating it.
- In an emergency, imagine hitting a button and a backcountry traveler is able to report an accident and, because the mobile device is tracking location, rescuers automatically know where to go.
So, it’s with this vision in mind that we’ve teamed up with the Utah Avalanche Center to apply for a Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant. Each year, the foundation selects numerous projects that are exploring the frontiers of new media technology and journalism.
We’d like to build a platform that makes the above scenarios possible. What’s more, we’d love to develop a platform that every funding-challenged avalanche center everywhere could take advantage of, maybe even standardize this sort of communication.
If you’re intrigued by the ideas described here, and if it’s a news network that would benefit you or people you know, we encourage you to visit our official application and take a few actions:
- If you’re a Tumblr user, reblog and favorite the application (look for the icons in pink on the left)
- Scroll to the bottom and click “like”
- Leave a comment and show your support, or ask a question or add your own idea
- If you’re a Twitter user, tweet this: @knightfdn Please consider this #newschallenge entry! http://ow.ly/9ND0S
- And please pass on the application to anyone you know who might be interested in it.
Happy to hear your thoughts in the comments here, too. So, does this fit your definition of news?