I stumbled across this website a few days ago while I was flipping through the pages of Scientific American. The name of the website is “Old Weather“, and it’s a project that aims to fill the holes in the earth’s climatic record between the years of World War I and World War II.
Now you may ask, who the heck cares about weather that’s 100-or-so years old? The fact is, between the two World Wars, we have a paucity of climate data, because weather recording was affected by the wars.
Then how do we get the data if it’s missing?
While ground-based weather stations lacked sufficient records, there were numerous ships at sea that kept records of weather on a day-to-day basis. OldWeather.org is a treasure trove of these ship logbooks, which typically contain six weather reports per day taken at four hour intervals. Unfortunately, the handwriting in these logbooks is almost impossible for a computer to read without horrendous mistakes. And that’s where the power of the HUMAN BRAIN comes in. Or rather, 550-thousand-plus human brains.
How it works
You create an account on the website, and then you proceed to select a ship whose logbooks you will analyze. Upon choosing a ship, you are presented with a scanned page from one of the logbooks. It is now your duty to type up the location, date, and weather reports of the ship. Yes, that sounds fairly elementary, but reading the sailors’ cursive may prove quite difficult at times. Before your first transcription, you might want to check out the tutorials. Don’t fret if you can’t read certain parts of the page: each page goes through three different users to ensure accuracy.
But wait, it gets even better! Like shipmates on a long voyage, you are assigned a ranking, starting with cadet. After completing a certain number of reports, you become a lieutenant, and if you complete more reports than anyone else, you get the honorary title of Captain.
Why it’s so awesome
OldWeather.com uses the power of the crowd, otherwise known as crowdsourcing. In one famous example, cited in the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, individuals were asked to guess the weight of an ox. When their guesses were averaged, they came within nine pounds of the ox’s actual weight.
It’s not a brand-new idea (in Internet time), but crowdsourcing has awesome potential. It is already being used by companies such as NASA, whose SETI@Home program relies on the computing power of several thousand alien aficionados. As for old weather, the crowd of 550-thousand-plus regisetered users transcribed in six months what would have taken a professional transcriber 28 years to do.
So while you’re transcribing, remember: every weather report that you do takes scientists one small step closer to painting a complete picture of the earth’s climate from 1915-1945. You’re part of an awesome crowd that is helping scientists and climatologists piece together a puzzle of our past, in order to predict the future.