By IBM’s own admission, weather forecasting seemed like an unusual use for its supercomputing technology. But 16 years after it began work the parallel processing supercomputing system that would become known as “Deep Thunder” —- a targeted weather forecasting program — IBM has taken the technology mobile, putting it on an iPad app and showing it off to lawmakers on Capitol Hill at a breakfast event on Wednesday and to reporters at its New York offices later in the week.
“When you think of supercomputing, your mind doesn’t immediately jump to weather forecasting,” said Michael Valocchi, vice president and partner at IBM’s energy utilities division, in a briefing with TPM. “Weather forecasting doesn’t sound exciting, but what we’ve found is that our system allows for an unprecedented granular look at incoming weather over an 84-hour period in a specific location, down to within a square mile, much more detailed than any other current weather forecast can provide.”
IBM achieves the incredibly detailed forecast by using a combination of public weather data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, WeatherBug, and other weather sensors on the ground, including IBM’s own sensors. The iPad app is the latest iteration of the software, although it isn’t available to the consumer market, yet.
The Deep Thunder iPad app that TPM saw at IBM’s offices in New York City didn’t necessarily scream “high-tech,” showing a simple line graph representing precipitation, wind speed and temperature over an 84-hour period.
But the underlying implications of the minute-by-minute, highly localized forecasting technology are much more impressive, catching the attention of governments and private companies around the world.
The government of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, for example, entered into a partnership with IBM in December 2010 to use Deep Thunder in a new weather prediction center designed to help the city adequately prepare people for flash floods, which left over 200 dead earlier in 2010.
“You’ll see Deep Thunder being used in a prominent way during the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2014 World Cup,” said Valocchi. Both events are of course taking place in Rio De Janeiro.
“When you’re planning for Olympic events, outdoor events like sailing, you will know exactly when to schedule those events with maximum confidence in the weather forecast,” Valocchi said.
IBM has worked with the New York City government on weather forecasting and modeling since 2001. It’s also worked and currently working with several utilities companies, who are using Deep Thunder in the field now, although IBM couldn’t disclose them due to confidentiality agreements, according to Valocchi.
Still, Valocchi said, it’s not hard to envision how Deep Thunder could be a game-changer for the technology.
“Imagine you’re part of a crew going around fixing utility lines,” Valocchi said, “You can take this app with you as you’re doing repairs and see: ‘Do I really want to be up in a bucket at this time if there’s going to be strong winds?’ It allows for improved scheduling and planning of important work.”
That said, not all utilities companies that have tested out Deep Thunder in the past have had success with it. Con Edison, New York’s predominant electricity provider, attempted to recently attempted to use Deep Thunder in one of its systems, over a two year period, but concluded in 2011 that it wasn’t feasible with its software at the time, as Forbes reported.
However, an iPad app would seem to mitigate some of those issues. Whether or not it succeeds according to IBM’s ambitions remains to be seen. Keep your eyes on Rio over the next few years to find out.
Correction: This article original stated that the iPad version of IBM’s Deep Thunder was being field-tested by utilities companies and others. In fact, it is the cloud-based version of Deep Thunder that is currently being used. The error has since been corrected in copy and we regret it.