Amateur Observers

There are thousands of amateur weather observers based in schools and homes around the UK. Many of these observers share their data with others, including contributing to citizen science projects like the Met Office Weather Observations Website (WOW).

To understand better the activity of amateur weather observers, we interviewed two amateur observers. Edward Hanna [AWS_01] is a Professor of Climate Change at the University of Sheffield and is a serious amateur observer with a semi-professional weather station. The other observer is a hobbyist who had built a home-made kit using a Raspberry Pi [AWS_02].

Over summer 2014, we also worked with a University of Sheffield student, Romilly Close, to build our own simple weather station using a Raspberry Pi. It sits on top of the Information School at the University of Sheffield and every 15 minutes we share temperature and pressure observations with the Met Office WOW project. Romilly wrote a guide to building a Pi weather station - so, if you are interested in having a go and becoming an amateur observer, you can learn how!

Read through the Data Journey and Culture tabs below to find out more, then add a comment to the discussion below.

Once you have finished follow the Blue line to the Met Office by clicking the link on the right. There you can find out more about the Met Office’s Weather Observations Website (WOW) in the R&D tab.

Data Journey-0

The process for making amateur weather observations has many similarities with official stations such as Weston Park. Typical differences include things such as the number of weather variables recorded, the type of instruments used, the site of the weather station, the frequency of observations and the format of the data.

Different types of amateur observer use different types of equipment to observe the weather. Here we focus on two different set-ups:

  • a semi-professional weather station similar to the official stations
  • an experimental weather station built using a Raspberry Pi kit

Collecting data – Professional quality

Edward Hanna is a Professor of Climate Change at the University of Sheffield. He has been actively observing the weather since he was a child when he began taking manual recordings using a thermometer.

In the audio clip, Edward explains how he setup his most recent weather station, which uses Davis Vantage automated equipment.

His temperature and pressure sensors are housed in a Stevenson Screen, a tipping bucket rain gauge measures rainfall, and an anemometer measures wind speed. This equipment has similar capabilities to that used by professional weather observers, but is more cost-effective for enthusiasts.  In the past, Edward has also used the manual equivalents of this equipment, which many traditional observers still use.

Since he got his equipment setup and calibrated for optimum use, Edward’s weather station has run almost by itself with little input from him required. He only needs to do occasional checks to ensure that things are running smoothly and make sure that his equipment is maintained and functioning properly. The observing process for automated amateur stations is much less hands-on than it was in pre-automated times when the observer would take their own daily readings according to a prescribed routine.

Edward shares his data with a network called Climatological Observers Link (COL).  COL provides detailed guidance on standards for observation routines and data formats in order to minimise variations in the data and make the data more accurate, reliable and reusable. Amateurs uploading to the network are encouraged to follow these guidelines. Edward takes great care to ensure that his data meets the standards, so that his data are high quality and can be reliably used by others when they are published in the monthly COL Bulletin.

Longer term, Edward is interested in observing trends in the weather over time, tying in with his professional interest in climate science. Over the years he has recorded his data in log books and computer data files, and archived it for future reference. Here he describes a potential project, once enough data has been collected:

Collecting data – Raspberry Pi

A generation of new amateur observers is taking advantage of developments in cheap computing and electronics technologies such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino.

These observers use a variety of components to build their weather stations around these technologies. Some use out-of-the-box weather stations such as the AirPi that connect directly to the Raspberry Pi. Others, like us, have built their own weather stations using components sourced from a range of high street and online retailers.

We have published our own guide to building a simple Raspberry Pi weather station which transmits data to the Met Office WOW site. This makes a great project for schools and others who want to find out more about weather observing and computing.

The hobbyist we talked to was interested in weather observing from a technological point of view:

 I thought this was a good platform for further experimentation and growing my knowledge in electronics more, rather than in computing, because there’s very little you can do on a Raspberry Pi that you can’t do on a regular computer except for the electronics side and that’s what really caught my interest there as a nice way to go into electronics.  And that got me then into, as an extension of electronics, the weather station which I thought– this matches very nicely with the other stuff that I’ve done. [AWS_02]

He had setup a full AirPi weather station, with a rain gauge add-on. His station generates observation data for a wide range of weather variables:

So the AirPi project is essentially the collection of weather related sensors which you can mix and match as you choose.  I got everything that was feasible to get in the UK so it has air pressure, temperature, relative humidity, light as in lux, then UV intensity and I have a rain gauge myself. So that wasn’t something the project actually recommended but because I have my Master’s stuff and PhD stuff relating to rain gauges I thought I must certainly add this and that was a nice meshing. [AWS_02]

His equipment was setup at home, in a setting that was less than optimal:

I live in the basement… I’ve got a window which opens outdoors onto a patio which has a small table… which the rain gauge is sat on and there’s a nice wire trailing up over my window down onto my window sill where the Raspberry Pi and the rest of it sits… the rain gauge is the only bit outside… and so the Raspberry Pi then just sits on the window sill where it can get the light. [AWS_02]

His Pi weather station was fully automated. It generates data at very frequent intervals and writes directly to a CSV file. He then gets the  data into standard units, and uses it to generate visual displays of the data for his own personal interest, using it as a sort of electronic barometer.

 I added CSV logging so I could more easily post analyse the data.  All the sensors–, the AirPi software provided no platform for calibration… So I added calibration, you know, for the different sensors… And then CSV is very good for post analysis but I wanted a real time display as well… so I wrote a built in HTTP server, so you can go to a nice page and you click on the temperature reading and it gives you a graph for the last 24 hours.  So you can quickly see what are the trends in temperature. [AWS_02]

Whilst he was not yet using his archive of data, he recognised possibilities for future analysis of the accumulated rain data that were tied to his professional interest in engineering.

I suppose one of the things I’m most interested about it is the rainfall side, because that does tie in more to what I’ve done as part of my degree.  Particularly what’s interesting is the shape of rainfall because from the design point of view, which is where I’ve mostly used rainfall data as part of my Master’s degree, rainfall is designed–, and this seems to be part of essentially Gaussian distribution with different amounts of peakiness depending on whether you’re seeing a summer or winter storm, 90% profile, and the different shapes of storms. [AWS_02]

Sharing data

Our interviews and observations of websites about amateur observing demonstrated that sharing of amateur weather data takes place across a wide range of online spaces. Much of this sharing is done automatically using built-in software, although in some cases it is purpose built software code written by the observer.

As mentioned above, Edward shares the data produced by his weather station via the amateur observing network Climatological Observers Link (COL). COL collates weather observations from serious amateurs and its monthly bulletin is of sufficient quality to be archived in the Met Office Library.

Well because– rather than just recording data and you know, the data not being useful for anything, it can be– in a small way it can help build up a picture of weather conditions across the UK, and how they vary. Get some historically archived data that it can be potentially used in research or even for teaching purposes on occasion.  [AWS_01]

Other sites of data sharing we observed being used by amateur observers include Met Office WOW, Weatherlink and Wunderground. Similar to COL, these networks all provide detailed guidance for amateur observers on how to produce high quality, usable data.

As his data has some quality issues, our Raspberry Pi enthusiast preferred not to share his weather data at the moment, although he may do in the future:

I have been considering doing that for the things which I know wouldn’t be affected by the sunlight so that’s particularly with the pressure and for the rainfall but also means I do have to write then the software model to do that.  And it’s not hugely complex I just haven’t got into the right frame of mind where I’ll sit down and write this bit of software today.  So I haven’t done it, but in the future I suppose I would be interested in doing that. [AWS_02]

Some amateur observers also post automated weather data to Twitter. These local amateur stations often have a sizeable Twitter following. The majority of tweets are simple weather oberstations that are generated automatically by the weather station equipment and sent out at regular daily intervals, with only occasional manual tweets made by the weather station owner.

This is a Tweet from the Pi Weather account, which reports weather conditions from Clacton-on-Sea:

 

Culture-1

A Met Office WOW project manager had identified three types of amateur weather observers who contributed to WOW:

The weather enthusiasts who are either very, very enthusiastic and perhaps have been keeping weather diaries, and weather logs for years…  So from the very serious enthusiasts, and there are some very serious ones…

And maybe as a category of– less meteorological enthusiasts, but people who are interested in mapping the weather to have a  small weather station in their garden because they just like keeping an eye on what’s happening to the temperature or pressure.  

The other category is education, although I think it’s schools and certain teachers… STEM are very interested in WOW because it’s one of the few things they can see that actually supports every letter in the acronym, the science, the technology, the engineering, and the maths. [MO_07]

An end in itself

The two observers we spoke to fell into the first two categories. For both these amateur observers, collecting and archiving data for its own sake were important activities. Specific plans for how to use their data were of less importance, although both had vague ideas about how they might use the data in the future for personal and professional research projects.

Data Quality

Both of the amateur observers were concerned about data quality. Edward had taken great care to get the placement of his weather station as good as possible, and had consulted professionals to help set up his equipment. His weather observations were done to a near professional level. He demonstrated deep concern about doing it right and maintaining standards and quality.

In contrast, our hobbyist knew that his weather station was not well-placed and was aware of the resulting limitations of his data:

So there’s a lot of sunlight which messes with the, er–, it doesn’t mess with the light reading, but it does mess with the temperature and relative humidity quite badly because it does heat up on the window sill.  So I will record temperatures of 50 degrees in the sunlight…   and because relative humidity is dependent on temperature, relative humidity shoots down as a result because it’s messing with that reading, and so relative humidity plummets– 20% relative humidity, what’s going on?  [AWS_02]

Whilst his data was of limited use in the short term, it was serving as a useful learning experience, whilst he dabbled with the technology.

Tinkering

Our hobbyist observer, who had built his own station using a Raspberry Pi, was more of a tinkerer than Edward. Rather than aiming for quality and strict standards, this observer was driven by a passion for problem-solving and technology. Whilst the weather and science were of interest, they were secondary to the activity of making and tinkering.

I always quite enjoyed Lego as a kid and specifically what I enjoy is the constrained solution. So if you’re trying to do something and you have these resources how can you best do what you’re trying to do? And so building the weather station isn’t so much–, it’s kind of a subset of that but it’s why I get into a lot of programming of electronics. I got this neat idea how can I do it with what I already have, or getting the least amount of stuff possible off eBay and things like that. And so the Raspberry Pi weather station is just another version of–, I mean in this case I didn’t have to worry too much about getting the components, but it’s a project along that same sort of line. So I was interested in doing it. [AWS_02]

Individual pursuits and collective endeavours

For both the amateurs that we spoke to weather observing was primarily a solitary pursuit. No direct interactions with others – either online or in person – were sought, other than those incidental to setting up equipment and tinkering with the software. However, making a contribution to a wider community through sharing of data or code was perceived as important by both.

In earlier years, Edward was more actively involved in the Royal Meteorological Society and Climatological Observers Link, although these activities were somewhat peripheral to the primary activity of observing the weather. However, current time constraints meant that these relationships were now limited to sharing data through the Climatological Observers Link. This activity was something that Edward recognised as a contribution to a broader collective endeavour:

So I mean it’s just the wider value of what you’re doing really, rather than just being isolated and actually, you know there’s a sort of a social benefit or a wider scientific benefit of collecting the data really. [AWS_01]

The Pi hobbyist we spoke to had decided not to share his data due to quality reasons. He did however, share online details of how to set up a Pi weather station and software code he had written for the project:

 I’ve been involved in several open source projects…trite, but sharing is caring sort of thing. It’s you do get a little bit of a… not jolt, but boost, or you get a little visceral pleasure of sharing and helping other people out and it would come under that. That’s the same reason why I’ve put this [code] in a lot of forums and stuff [AWS_02]

Whilst the observers we spoke to were not actively engaged in the broader community of amateur weather observers, for others engagement with other weather observers is an important part of their practice.

There are several active amateur weather observers online forums. Some are dedicated to helping with technical support, whilst others are more interested in discussing locally occurring weather phenomena and extreme events. Our study of the Met Office’s WOW forum identified it as an online space focused on the technical and problem solving aspects of setting up and running your own weather station.

Personal satisfaction and intrinsic motivation

It was clear when speaking to both of our amateur observers that they got a lot of personal satisfaction from their weather observation activities. This satisfaction arose from being engaged in an activity that captured their attention and enthusiasms.

Both reported that engagement in and satisfaction from these and similar activities stemmed from childhood, and early encouragement from parents and teachers. Edward described how he had been a keen weather observer since he was seven years old:

For both observers an element of self-actualisation arose from their weather data activities related to their active engagement in the pursuit of knowledge, developing and using their skills and creativity, learning more about scientific phenomena, and helping others through sharing data or designs.

I was sent a link to the AirPi project essentially and I thought this is very me because it combines several of my previous interests in the form of the electronics, the Raspberry Pi, the weather, programming, er, things I’d done during my degree course. And I thought this seems like a very nice way to try meshing knowledge in a new way. And so then I thought I’d build one. [AWS_02]

Listen to Edward talk about what he gets from observing the weather:

 

Archive sources


We’d like you to take a  minute to reflect on some of the things you have read above and add a comment to the discussion below.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What are your thoughts on weather observation as a hobby – is it something you are interested in exploring?
  • How would you feel about sharing the data you created? Would you be interested to know how that data was used by others?
  • What would you want your data to be used for? Is there anything you would be unhappy about your data being used for?

Remember, we built a guide to building your own simple weather station if you are interested in becoming an amateur observer.

Now follow the blue line to the Met Office on the right. You can read more about how amateur data is used by the Met Office in the WOW section of the Met Office R&D tab.

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