SHEDNOTES 150: Pollution in the data streams

Every newspaper has corners which fill up by some mysterious process which almost everyone has forgotten the details of – grain and fatstock prices; pool league rankings; surf reports; church service programmes; proceedings of the Royal and Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes; etcetera.

Sooner or later, somebody crucial goes on holiday; somebody else wings it; nobody complains; and the rot has set in.

One of the old newsroom tales at the Yorkshire Post involved a night-duty reporter who kept being asked for the Potato Prices and invented a list of his own varieties which he would use to fill space as required: Queen Charlottes, Large Pinks, Dawn Trumpeters, etc.

Eventually, something goes wrong enough to prompt an investigation.

This is the situation the Guardian was making the best of with a relaunch of its daily box of sunshine and weather statistics.

Its readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, reported at

theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/23/our-weather-pages-are-now-bringing-you-real-sunshine/

He said:

Newspaper designers know that playing around with the home of the crossword will bring a cohort of cruciverbalists about their head and they won’t be expressing themselves using anagrams. Just as the BBC’s shipping forecast has loyal listeners glued to the state of the weather in German Bight and Rockall, so does the Guardian have readers who daily scan the 64 places whose sun and rain is recorded in Around the UK and Ireland Yesterday.

Except, the data wasn’t always what it seemed. The basic principles of the section have remained unchanged for years. Every day we carry the number of hours of sunshine and millimetres of rain and the highs and lows of temperatures as well as the weather for 64 areas from Aberdeen to Yeovil in a 24-hour period up to 5pm the previous day. However, an eagle-eyed reader, as we are wont to say but on this occasion with even more truth than usual, spotted that the number of hours of sunshine listed for Barrow-in-Furness didn’t match up with his experience of the previous day at all.

Liz McCabe is the Guardian’s weather editor. Her main task is taking charge of the editorial content (Weatherwatch, Starwatch, Pollutionwatch etc).

The forecasts, maps and reports are outsourced with specifications set up many years ago. She says it is all too easy for the weather page editor to let them flow in daily and assume that everything is OK, as it has always been. Accuweather took over from PA MeteoGroup 18 months ago.

She realised that Barrow was a sign of a wider problem: “When I checked … I was told that the Walney Island weather station off Barrow didn’t supply sunshine figures. I asked where they got the data that went in the paper. I was told that they used to use Blackpool airport, but that Blackpool had stopped supplying sunshine data, and now they were using Warton.”

Warton is 20 miles from Barrow.

She then decided to review all 64 sites and developed a new list where the information could be more accurately assessed. Forty-three sites are unchanged and 16 of those now show no figures for the number of hours of sunshine because no reliable figures are available. The new list of 64 sites began on 3 August, ending a long run of weather misinformation. However, the missing sites have caused angst among some readers. One wrote: “For some years now my wife and I have followed with considerable interest the daily reports from Bridlington and Skegness and for us, their disappearance is most disappointing.

“The only east coast named location left is Cromer, which is fine, but for example there is no Whitby or Scarborough as possible replacements for Bridlington and Skegness.”

McCabe explained: “I recently updated all the Round the UK reports, after it was brought to my attention that no one had thought about them for at least 25 years. We used to take the Skegness figures from Wainfleet No 2, who never supplied sunshine hours or a noon weather report. Bridlington came from Bridlington Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre, which likewise recorded no sunshine data and supplied no noon weather report.

“Our various data-feed suppliers have, for years, been making ‘guesstimates’, marking them with an asterisk, and claiming, wrongly, that they were the previous day’s sunshine figures. Many weather stations do not record sunshine hours, so this misinformation has been general throughout the file.

“I decided that this was just not good enough. I can’t do anything to change what weather stations do or do not supply, but we are going to be honest about it.

“I therefore got a list from the Met Office of every weather station in the country, analysed what they do and don’t record, and devised a new list, using all the stations that provide all the data (including sunshine) that we carry. I completed the list with a good spread of stations that do not supply sunshine figures. I also dropped the “noon” label from the weather report, as Accuweather’s meteorologists can generate a general weather summary for the day from the rest of a station’s data.

“The most reliable stations are at airports or RAF bases (synoptic or METAR stations). That brought me to RAF Waddington, which supplies all the data we like to carry. It is close to Lincoln, so Lincoln has joined the list, as Skegness has gone. Similarly Bridlington has been replaced by Beverley, the nearest town to RAF Leconfield.”

The Shed’s old hacks have shared that sense of rising cold that McCabe must have felt when she took the lid off the mess and congratulate her on seeing the job through, rather than leaving a memo for somebody else to lose and heading for the pub

allfornow …

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