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Weather and Society Watch
Guest Editorial

Live, Breathe, and Check in with the Weather: How to Share the Weather with the Online Community through Geolocation-based Applications and Social Media
by Karen Freberg*

Social media are revolutionizing how people conduct business, communicate with others, and share information about similar interests online. From sharing reviews of consumer products to voicing their opinions about celebrities (ex. Tiger Woods) or corporations in crises (ex. Toyota and BP), members of the global online community use social media to express their personal feelings. Social media impact any entity wishing to communicate effectively with large numbers of people, and thus have implications for the weather and disaster response communities. In this piece, I will provide a brief overview of social media, descriptions of current trends involving new technology and mobile devices, and suggestions for best practices and future trends in geolocation-based applications relevant to weather professionals.

Overview of Social Media

Social media are defined as "online practices that utilize technology and enable people to share content, opinions, experiences, insights, and media themselves" ( Lariscy, Avery, Sweetser, and Howes, 2009, p. 1). These shared communications take place in "a wide range of online, word-of-mouth forums including blogs, company-sponsored discussion boards and chat rooms, consumer-to-consumer email, consumer product or service ratings Web sites and forums, Internet discussion boards and forums, and microblogs" (Mangold & Faulds, 2009, p. 358). In contrast to the one-way communication that characterizes traditional mass media, social media are "demassified," in the sense that each user can also be a contributor, sharing information both visually and rhetorically, and serving as a virtual hub of information within an online community.

Advances in communication technologies making social media possible include computers, but most especially digital hand-held devices, including mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and wireless tablets such as the iPad. The evolution of the mobile phone device has taken center stage in the communication technology realm, shaping the network communications framework and the ways we connect with each other. New applications including text messaging (signal messaging services; SMS), one-to-many communication messages, and photo sharing transform messages into multimedia message services (MMS). Professional predictions point to the remarkable power of the hand-held device in the future (Baekel, June, 23, 2008). According to expert opinion, the very near future will see social networking done entirely on these mobile devices, as opposed to static workstations, and up to 80 percent of internet traffic will occur on mobile phones or other transferable devices (Baekel, June 23, 2008). Mobile web will be the dominant force for obtaining information no later than 2015 ("New study shows the mobile web will rule by 2015", April 2010).

Use of the devices continues to grow at a very rapid pace, both in the United States and globally. According to the United Nations Foundation report on technology in emergency situations, the number of individuals using mobile phones in 2010 has increased to four billion, or 61 out of every 100 people worldwide ("New technologies in emergencies and conflicts report", 2010). In the United States alone, over 4 million text messages are exchanged each day, and use is continuing to increase with the evolution of technology and affordability of cell phones (Nichols, June 7, 2010).

Mobile devices support traditional connectivity while expanding the influence of the individual among larger communities. Mobile devices not only enhance the communication individuals have with their personal contacts, but the technology also forges connections with an entire online virtual community (Palen, 2002). Users not only receive information through the devices, but they can use the technology to create their own content or forward content to others. By doing so, users contribute directly to the media by providing eyewitness perspectives through video, photos, or texted accounts of an event, often bypassing the professional reporters on the scene and providing unfiltered views of what is happening in the world (Gordon, 2007).

Mobile devices are especially helpful in disaster situations because they are "more readily available than battery-operated radios, as an increasing number of residents carry them everywhere. Further, they can serve as both input and output devices, facilitating one-to-one, many-to-one, and many-to-many communication" (Jaeger, et al., 2007, p. 599).

Overview of Geolocation-based Applications

Mobile phones offer a number of pathways for effective communication. Traditional one-to-one verbal communication has been augmented with other variations. In one-to-many communication, a sender can broadcast information directly to a large segment of the population or to a large stakeholder group. The information can be disseminated in various forms, including visual information (photos and videos) and textual information (SMSs and short press releases) ("New technologies in emergencies and conflicts report," 2010). In many-to-many communication, the mobile device is used to connect groups of people using mobile internet capabilities and social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Gowalla (“New technologies in emergencies and conflicts report," 2010).

A growing use of mobile devices, especially smartphones, involves geolocation, or the identification of the real-world location of an object, such as a cell phone. A recent comScore MobiLens data study among mobile users reported that 26 percent of the participants using smartphones used their mobile devices to get access to maps through applications, while 19 percent accessed this information via a web browser on their phone (“US mobile navigation on the rise," June 25, 2010).

Foursquare ( and Gowalla ( are becoming very popular as applications for mobile devices and are particularly well-suited to the mobile device because they combine location-based features such as geographical information with social networking capabilities. Foursquare is a mobile application for both phones and the web that allows individuals to connect with friends online and to check in at a specific location. People can check in and earn badges at well known locations (ex. landmarks), businesses, universities, and other locations. If you are the person that checks in the most at a specific location, you become the "Mayor" of the location on Foursquare.

Gowalla ( is a similar location-based application that allows users to check in at specific locations, but you do not necessarily have "friends" like you do on Foursquare. Gowalla allows you to check in at specific locations to receive "stamps." In addition, Gowalla serves as a geo-scavenger hunt application, meaning that businesses and cities have used this application to encourage individuals to check in various locations around the city (e.g. tour of the city based on landmarks, etc).

Best Practices with Geolocation-based Applications for Weather Professionals

Listed below are some best practices for weather professionals using Foursquare, Gowalla, or other location-based application tools in social media to communicate effectively and proactively with local and national law enforcement and fire departments, hospitals, schools and universities, government agencies, media, and local community residents.

•  Use location-based applications like Foursquare, Gowalla, Google My Maps services (see Figure 1) . My Maps is a service for mobile devices that allows you to create a specific route along major locations and landmarks in your city. This could be used to specify particular routes during an emergency ("How to use social media in disaster," n.d.). Foursquare and Gowalla accounts can be synced up with Facebook and Twitter accounts. By linking these sites together, weather professionals can ensure that information is available to all targeted online community audiences.

•  Design emergency preparedness applications specifically for weather-related situations. Custom applications for mobile devices (see for more information) provide people with detailed information about what to do in emergencies and how to obtain further information. This information should be linked not only on geolocation-based application sites, but also on main social media sites (ex. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and the sponsoring organization's main Web site. These applications should feature concise messages (e.g. texts, updates, podcasts), as well as visual presentations (e.g. pictures and videos) showing people how to prepare for and respond to a natural weather event or disaster.

•  Create specific updates about the weather at key locations through geolocation-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla (ex. weather stations, landmarks, businesses). Specific businesses and well-visited locations within the radius of a weather event should have relevant information for people checking in at specific locations. Integration of organizational messages with these other information outlets increases the chance that people in an affected area obtain important updates. This should help reduce fear and anxiety due to uncertainty and lack of information (Shklovski et al., 2010). It is particularly important to reach people who are not at home, where they might hear more traditional messages through television or radio.

•  Design and initiate geolocation location protocol for weather situations: Using Gowalla, weather professionals could encourage users to check in at specific locations for further information and supplies to prepare for weather situations. Awareness of other locations important to weather preparedness, such as shelters, local hospitals, law enforcement centers, fire departments, and health clinics, could be increased among users. Mobile communication channels serve as a valuable resource for the community, providing information, contributing to a sense of normal life, and supplying ways to pass the time until a crisis situation returns to normal (Shklovski et al., 2010).

•  Create public partnerships with local businesses in your area on Foursquare and Gowalla, incorporating specific weather updates on their sites. Weather professionals and businesses can work together to raise community awareness of weather situations. This strategic online partnership will allow businesses to practice proactive communication measures while establishing and validating the credibility of the weather professionals. Weather professionals can collaborate with local and national law enforcement, local hospitals, schools and universities, and the media to integrate location-based applications in emergency management preparedness and response campaigns.

•  Initiate a teleweather mobile and social media campaign: Weather professionals can enhance proactive emergency management and risk communication plans by designing a mobile and social media campaign focused on distributing information to community residents and other audiences about natural disasters and weather situations. These campaigns constitute one of the emerging trends currently impacting businesses, universities, and the military. For example, the Army has recently initiated a telemedicine campaign to send out health tips, reminders, and general announcements to soldiers ("Army using telemedicine," June 30, 2010).

Closing Statements

In spite of the many advantages provided by mobile devices in a natural disaster or weather emergency, the history of responses to these events in the era of new technologies demonstrates that this is a rapidly changing landscape requiring constant analysis and proactive planning. Recognizing the opportunities and challenges posed by geolocation-based applications and new technologies will help weather professionals and responders prepare for and anticipate problems to maximize performance during a weather situation.

Although personal use of mobile media is quite common and continues to improve-leading to relatively high levels of competence among the public-weather professionals should not assume that all organizational personnel have the knowledge and training to use the technology appropriately during a weather event. A proactive approach constantly updates the awareness and training of personnel in these rapidly changing technologies.

Mobile communication using geolocation-based applications within social media not only provides the effective dissemination of necessary information, but it also reduces fear and levels of uncertainty about a weather event through shared communication. Today's audiences expect to be informed rather than controlled or commanded-even during a natural disaster or weather event-and location-based social media provide the perfect platform for ensuring public safety.

*Karen Freberg (@kfreberg) is a doctoral candidate studying public relations at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Freberg's research interests include social media, reputation management, and crisis communications. She writes on these various topics on her personal blog


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Photo credit:

Photo 1: July 2010 flash flooding on the Uncompahgre River near Ouray, Colo. (Photo by Blake Beyea)

Figure information:

Figure 1: MyMaps from Google Maps of Knoxville, TN

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