NeXT Forecaster

When more than 24 inches of snow fell on Chicago over the 1979 New Year's Day weekend, the city had such trouble removing snow from the streets that it caused a political scandal and cost the mayor her job. It also sent Brendan Larson on his way to a career as a weatherman.

Now, 14 years later, Larson is using weather satellites, custom software, and NeXT computers to sell personalized weather maps to Chicago's media.

"The weather here is very changeable and the media is competitive. It was that combination that generated my interest in broadcast meteorology," says Larson. Predicting the weather has confounded everyone from native American medicine men to contemporary scientists. Larson's Aurora, Illinois–based company, WeatherLabs, tries to solve the problem with a twist. His latest project is designed to provide weather information on demand, taking advantage of NeXTSTEP's multitasking and communications features.

"We're on the verge of doing something that no other company has done in the industry," he says. "We're going to provide live meteorologists who will answer the phone and take personalized re-quests for weather information."

A network of NeXT computers will continually listen to incoming data from weather satellites and assemble it into databases. From there, Larson's own custom software will pull out the data, using NeXTSTEP 3.0's DBKit, and make it accessible through a front end that is friendly enough to be used by even the most computer-illiterate meteorologist.

"Every meteorologist will be able to instantly call up local, regional, and international data," says Larson. "The forecasting will be done by an intelligent agent who will take the raw numeric data and apply what I've learned for long-range forecasting and analysis. We'll build as much of our expertise into the system as possible."

Custom programming is the key, since the needs of meteorologists for raw data, processing, and presentation of weather information can't be met by off-the-shelf software.

Display PostScript is another crucial component of the system, since much of Larson's work involves producing maps and charts for newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times. He relies primarily on Adobe Illustrator and PixelMagician from Bäcchus Software, which lets him translate Targa files to TIFF.

For broadcast-quality graphics, Larson plans to take advantage of the NeXTdimension's ability to manipulate true-color graphics in real time and output those graphics to videotape. A NeXT-dimension system could replace dedicated computer-graphics systems that are in place in most television stations across the country and cost upwards of $60,000.

"I don't have to buy separate computers that [each] do one task well, I can buy a NeXT system that does several things well," Larson says.

With an undergraduate degree in meteorology from Northern Illinois University and a minor in computer science, Larson has found a unique opportunity to combine his interests.

Besides providing vital weather information to Midwestern farmers, Larson has found him-self in demand as an expert witness, making occasional court appearances. "There was one [woman] who slipped on the ice. I can say whether it was snowing or not," he says.

A weatherman down to his bones, Larson couldn't resist one final prediction.

"Once people realize they can get personalized weather forecasts, I think they'll use them quite a bit. The NeXT plays a role because we need to be able to rapidly and quickly call up that information and analyze it."

by Lee Sherman