My wife is way up in the frosty Bavarian mountains right at the moment, and I don't need to check out the weather reports to know the snow conditions: I just need an SMS from her like the one saying "There's a ton of it. I'm up to my bum in powder!" But were I pondering a weekend trip to the slopes without such excellent local info, I may well check out the resort Web page for snow reports, because they'd have a precise fix on how good the skiing is.
Or perhaps not.
Over at The Globe and Mail there's a fabulous exposé about exactly how much of a lie ski resorts tell about the amount of snow they've got—and it was uncovered thanks to the iPhone (and, indeed, other smartphones). We all may have suspected that resorts fib a little bit to encourage us to visit and plonk down cash on expensive ski passes, but would you believe they lie by up to 20% of snow depth?
That's the sort of figure revealed by the SkiReport.com app on the iPhone, which lets local skiers on the slopes phone in with up to the minute reports. It's a crowdsourcing experiment that delivers a level of detail that no resort could ever hope to match—and it's more accurate because the skiers have no agenda (unless they want to keep the pistes all to themselves). An academic study by researchers at Dartmouth College has just looked into the phenomenon and borne out the SkiResort.com conclusions, by examining the last five seasons at 450 ski sites in North America and comparing weather reports with resort reports. Unsurprisingly a lot of lying went on, and there were two criteria that seemed to result in the worst overestimates of snowfall: If the resort was near a city, and if it was a weekend. Resorts under those conditions are obviously keen to attract visitors—and they cheated by an average of 23% on the snow figures.
That "weekend effect" is irrelevant for skiers using a crowdsourced app that tells you exactly how good the snow is. It's incredibly handy, obviously, though it's not clear if the iPhone app is having direct impacts on crowd numbers on the slopes yet. Give it time: Someone will do that research soon.
And there's a bigger implication from all of this. With everyone soon carrying smartphones that are location-aware, and with more and more apps like Foursquare and Yelp popping up that let you supply reviews and data on places and services, we might be about to enter a highly democratized era. At least in terms of the truthfulness of self-advertised businesses.