Big weather stories: 16 digital tips and tools for when the rain falls/floods rise/gales blast/snow hits

So it rained at my house yesterday. And rained. And rained. And so I found myself back at our house (we were due to be away for the weekend) helping make sure our little village didn’t flood, which, thankfully, it didn’t (just).

It’s at times like this that the local news organisation can re-establish its importance (if it had lost readers over the year) or establish its use (in the case of newer, hyperlocal sites) to the community it serves.

This is designed to be a guide to making sure you get as much as you can out of the digital tools out there to put yourself at the heart of any weather-related story. It’s broken into two parts: Finding information, and presenting information. If you have any additional tools or ideas, please add the in the comments box.

Finding information

1. Environment Agency website – how to get the best out of it

We all know about the Environment Agency website, but there are a couple of specific uses I wanted to flag up as being particularly useful.

The first is once you actually get to the flood warnings page, click on a particular flood warning which is in place and then click on ‘view as a map.’ This takes you through to a map page like this:

Environment Agency Floodmap
Environment Agency Floodmap

This has the instant advantage of taking often unfamiliar/vague names for flood areas and showing exactly where they are – and potentially throwing up the names of other communities within the flood area which people are likely going to be using the names of (see number 2).

The other part of the Environment Agency website worth exploring is the sea and water levels report, which is perhaps one of the best pieces of near real-time, accessible data produced by any government agency:

Environment Agency river level warning
Environment Agency river level warning

Straight away, it adds context through data – so in this graph of Ramsbottom, we can see the river rose to the highest level ever recorded – and well within the ‘flooding possible’ phase, too. You can see how the Rossendale Free Press used it here.

2. Try map-based searches for social updates

I’ve blogged about Geofeedia before – I’m hesitant to again because I know there may be (rather steep) monthly charges on the way for it. But for, now it works – easy to locate an area and search for pictures and video:


There is, however, another show in town. Recently-launched Iwitness looks very good:


Even without the cost issue I mentioned, I think Iwitness edges it for me for these sorts of weather events for one reason really – it allows you to set the timeframe you want to search in – a crucial way of filtering out noise you aren’t interested in. Both tools rely on people having set up geolocation on their phones – which many people haven’t.

Geotwerp is good just for Twitter – very good in fact.

There is, however, another great tool for social search:

3. Try using Storify differently

I’m a bit of a late convert to Storify, largely due to a poor experience I had with it early on which made me reluctant to go back. However, recent return visits have shown it has come on leaps and bounds and I can’t help but think it will become the liveblogging tool of choice for many in the near future.

One of the reasons for that prediction is how easy it makes social search. I know it isn’t meant to be a social search engine, but it performs the job brilliantly, allowing you to do multiple searches, quickly, through Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Google plus and the web in general. For finding pictures or information when you are trawling through multiple place names it is, in short, brilliant.

4. Going hyperlocal with weather forecasts 

For readers watching the weather anxiously outside their window, knowing what’s coming up next is critical, as well as what is going on around them. Regional TV weather forecasts are ok, and with the best will in the world, even local radio can do so much. Websites can provide a great service by making use of data from the Met Office website. Its search tool now goes down to each of its 5,000 weather forecasting stations – enabling you to do a very detailed weather forecast which can really be of use to people within your area:

5. Search Youtube

Like stating the obvious, I suspect you’re thinking. Maybe it is – but I know it’s a question I’d always ask … largely because the answer is normally ‘er, no, I hadn’t.’ Part of that is -probably – because we see YouTube as a source of stories about funny videos which have gone viral … but that probably says more about the gap between Youtube’s perceived use and what people actually use it for. The same applies to Twitvid and Vimeo – both of which are popular, with the latter often producing high quality stuff.

6. Head to the forums!

Rather like real-life communities, regulars on forums and messageboards will head to their online communities when things happen. Using Boardreader I found this video of the River Irwell flooding  – I’d never have thought to have looked there if I was reporting on it. The downside to tools such as Omgili and boardreader  aren’t necessarily indexing as quickly as Google does – but it’s a safe bet that if someone has talked about flooding in Todmorden today, someone else has talked about it there before, too.

7. Webcams!

Searching for webcams can be an, er, interesting past-time. But the Highways Agency cameras online are worth monitoring to see what’s happening across a wider area.

8. Appeal for information

Might sound a little odd to include here, because it’s what we do anyway. But people do seem more ready/willing to share information about what’s going on in their area/to them when they know it helps others. Looking at Tweets sent to the Rossendale Free Press, there was at least one example of people wanting their information including in the Storify it had created. Asking people what’s going on isn’t a sign we don’t know – it’s a sign we’re embracing the social world around us.

Presenting information

1. Do more than just news

One of my pet frustrations is the obsession the agencies – such as the Environment Agency and councils – have with trying to drive people to listen to local radio stations when things go wrong. Local news websites, be there based in newsrooms which produce newspapers or in a front room – have the ability to be more agile, swifter and more in depth with information than local radio ever can be.

Any newsroom web editor knows that the first thing to do when it snows isn’t to get a story online saying it is snowing, but to create an article with the list of school closures on there. Making sure you have plenty of information available – contact numbers for emergency services, simple lists with information of where is affected and where isn’t. That’s the sort of content which will make people stick around in the future.

2. Think liveblog (Storify again!)

Short bursts of information and updates work very well alongside regular stories. Storify, to me, is currently the best in class for several reasons: It lets people comment on each entry, it displays all sorts of multimedia very well, has great social search capabilities  (see above). It also happens to be free.

3. Maps!

You might know your area very well, but will your readers know the whole area so well? If you have multiple instances of stuff going on – flooding, for example – a street name might not be enough to pinpoint what is going on, or be enough to make sure a reader knows where the action is at. Google Maps are incredibly simply to throw together, but the ‘views’ can be huge.

4. Compare and contrast images

The Liverpool Echo did something great this week (nothing new there – but I want to mention this in particular): It produced a ‘then and now’ picture gallery of Liverpool landmarks which looks like this. Showing the difference a flood/snow can make can be easy too – thanks to Google Streetmap. As pictures come in, use them to show what the situation looks like, with Streetmap to show what it should look like. The image below doesn’t use Streetmap, but you’ll get the idea:

5. Show the big picture – literally

Picture galleries are great, and so are videos – but sometimes something different is needed to give you a real feeling of scale. That’s where Dermandar comes in.

It makes it very very simple to upload a series of images and gives you the option to create a panorama or 360 degree view of something.

This being a blog hosted on, I can’t show you the straightforward embed, but here’s what it would look like.

6. Think Data

Numbers can often overwhelm in weather stories – a good way demonstrate the number of people flooded out over a period of time, or the changing temperature over a few days, is through data. Google Docs/Charts can do a good job, but there are a couple of new tools our there worth checking out, including (if you have a fair bit of time on your hands) and much easier,

7. Use widgets where you can

It’s worth plugging in widgets to stories where possible – the Met Office one is good for, er, weather while the Environment Agency also has a good regionalised widget for flood warnings. Both help make content more live.

8. Don’t forget about Facebook!

Journalists obsess about Twitter and what is being written on it and whether they are first with information on it. That’s fine – but don’t forget about Facebook. 10x as many people are there, and they’ll not only be sharing information (findable via Storify – see above) but also looking for information. Breaking news and information should live just as much on Facebook as it does on Twitter.


2 thoughts on “Big weather stories: 16 digital tips and tools for when the rain falls/floods rise/gales blast/snow hits

  1. Definitely think YouTube is a super resource, one tip is when searching go to advanced and select ‘sort by upload date’. Then you get the latest uploads rather than the most viewed (which may be months/years old)

    Also wrote this blog post after North East flooding coverage (does torrential rain follow you around David!?) about using YouTube videos and comments in reporting:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s