uksnow – the power of crowdsourcing

As I sit here writing this post, it is snowing again on the outskirts of Bracknell, and those of us who are in the office today are all anxiously glancing out of the window to monitor the heaviness of the snowfall and whether it is settling on the ground (it isn’t, yet).

This morning’s view from the window …
The memory of the heavy snows of last December and January – and the chaos they caused – remain firmly in everyone’s memory, so it is understandable how twitchy we all are at the first possibility of snow-induced traffic chaos. For me, the afternoon/evening of December 21st was by far the most traumatic, as I found myself stranded in Bracknell while a 36-week pregnant Heather was stuck in Henley, with neither of us able to get back to Newbury to collect Isaac from nursery.

It’s all very well looking out of the window, but that tells me nothing about the state of the weather along my 25-mile route home, and even hitting F5 on the BBC Weather web page does not provide enough granularity to be confident enough to make the critical stay-or-go decision. After all, as so many of us discovered last year, the difference between getting away safely and being stranded for hours in a gridlocked hell can be as little as five or ten minutes.

Which is where a very clever fellow named Ben Marsh comes in, with his wonderful web-based app uksnowmap.com. Combining Google Maps data with crowdsourced Twitter inputs, uksnow provides a detailed, interactive, real-time view of where and how heavily it is snowing anywhere in the country.

It’s brilliant, not least because it is so simple. Users simply send in tweets with the hashtag #uksnow, the first half of their postcode and a one-to-ten score based on how severe the snowfall in their area is. They can even add comments and photos, which are displayed in an ever-updating stream on the site, for a richer experience.

I have the web version constantly open on a tab on my browser, so I can periodically monitor the snow as it sweeps across the country. By providing me with the view outside other people’s windows and not just my own, I can make an informed decision about my travel arrangements without the need to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Better still, I can provide my own updates on the move via the uksnow iPhone app.

It’s very cool. If you have never used uksnow before, you should bookmark the website now. It is a tremendous example of how the power of crowdsourcing via Twitter can be used to provide a valuable public service, as thousands of individual voices with local knowledge each contribute to produce a bigger national picture.

Isn’t technology wonderful sometimes?