She’s no Al Roker; she’s not even human. The top weather forecaster on Japanese television is Airi, an animated character on the Weathernews channel. (She’s part AI and part controlled by voice actors.) Airi not only points out the highs and lows on the map but also chitchats with viewers, who send in comments and questions. With her wide eyes, giggly voice, and geisha-like outfit, this “Weatherroid” may be a quintessential “Only in Japan” phenomenon. But Weathernews aims to take participatory meteorology global by combining its technology for analyzing social-media posts with the native social networks in other countries.
“We can’t copy and paste a Japanese business model to the rest of the world,” says Tomohiro Ishibashi, the director of Weathernews. But the Japanese aren’t the only culture that makes weather a social affair. In May, Weathernews bought Weathermob, a social network for people to chat about the weather. Weathermob has about 400,000 downloads in 140 countries. Users post photos and comments to the company’s iPhone app—often in the universal language of emoji.
Today, July 27, Weathernews announced a deal to share data and data analysis with Moji, whose app, MoWeather, gets posts from about 80 million users in China. The two deals come in addition to Weathernews’ own social weather app for the global market, Sunnycomb.
A glance at some of the cheesy topics trending on Twitter might call into question the wisdom of crowds; but user input is key to improving weather forecasts, according to Ishibashi. “We do believe the people are the best weather sensor,” he says. “They feel everything.”
Founded in 1986 by Ishibashi’s father, Hiroyoshi, Weathernews began as a weather consulting service to the shipping industry. In 1999, under Tomohiro, Weathernews launched a mobile website, and in 2000 it began TV broadcasts.
In 2005, the company started bringing its audience into the process with the launch of Weather Report, a site (and later an iPhone app) that allows people to provide photo and text updates on the weather around them. Weathernews combines this input with the official data from weather stations in Japan to fine-tune forecasts to its 20 million users—about 8 million of which provide regular weather reports—often in the form of photos showing clouds, tornados, or earthquake damage. (Weathernews makes money off the 2.5 million users who pay around $2-$3 per month for the premium version of the service.)
Weathernews gained notoriety providing better predictions for the all-important arrival of the spring cherry blossoms than Japan’s National Weather Service could. The NWS was observing 50 trees to make its forecast; Weathernews users were submitting images of 20,000 trees that the company fed into a special computer model to make predictions.
Weathernews provides more than data to users: It provides a social experience. It’s on-air presenters, called Weathernews-casters, are essentially performers and talkshow hosts. For example, hosts perform goodnight skits each evening based on a weather phrase of the day, such as “This year’s summer is really hot!” and “Survival food is really delicious!” User comments pop up onscreen during the performance.
The Weathernews-casters can relate to the audience because that’s where they started. All the Weathernews forecasters are chosen by their fellow viewers in an American Idol-style competition. (Women dominate the field.) Even Airi the Weatherroid was created by a viewer.
On August 1, Weathernews will host its second-annual SORA Expo, a weather-themed festival that it expects to draw 20,000 people. “It’s like a rock concert,” says Julia LeStage, a former daytime- and reality-TV producer who founded Weathermob and is now chief editorial officer at Weathernews. “They will get the equivalent of a Taylor Swift to write a weather song.”
As dwellers of an island nation subject to frequent natural disasters, the Japanese may have a special fascination with the weather. But Ishibashi and LeStage think that every culture has its own obsession with the sky. “We had 120 inches of snow in Boston this year,” says LeStage. “And on a sparkling sunny day like today, that’s something you think about.”
The conversation is certainly popular in China among the 80 million regular MoWeather users, and Weathernews says it can put all that chatter into better news. “They are actually not a weather company,” says LeStage about Moji. “They are more like Instagram. They don’t have any place to put the data that they take in.”
That’s what Weathernews provides—an algorithm and database to process photos of clouds and comments about heat into data points that provide a fuller picture of what’s really happening out there. “We are very open,” says Ishibashi. “Every text, every photo, every subjective feeling—it’s all OK. It is all weather data, and it’s all put into the model.” Language isn’t a barrier, he says, since the weather conversation has a pretty simple and similar vocabulary—shower, heavy rain, etc.—in any language.
Weathernews will deliver these insights back to Moji and also use them to make its own service in Japan better. “If there is heavy rain in Beijing, two days later, Japan or Korea has rain,” notes Ishibashi. It’s up to Moji how it packages the insights to its users in China. Weathernews is not trying to take its social network into every country, just its algorithms. “Some apps are good for some country but . . . not good for another country,” he says.
The company aims to keep expanding to become what Ishibashi calls a global platform for the weather industry. Social weather reporting can have the most impact in places where people are the only sources of information. About 80% of the world’s 29,000 weather stations are in Europe and the United States, leaving the rest of the world with a dearth of data that people with phones can now help fill in. “Ten years ago, mobile infrastructure would not be able to support Weathernews to make a play like this,” says LeStage.