Cloudy, Clear and a Chance of Thunderstorms

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June 20, 2012

Chris Smith and Gillian Evans are a husband-and-wife team volunteering in Uganda with Grameen Foundation through our Bankers without Borders® volunteer initiative. As Strategy Manager, Chris is responsible for business planning and Grameen Foundation’s relationship with MTN Uganda.  Gillian is an Education Specialist, responsible for developing and applying training best practices in the field and helping build the training center of excellence in Uganda.  Chris and Gillian live in Kampala with their two children and will complete their one-year volunteer term on July 31.  You can read about their experience as a family living and working for Grameen Foundation in Uganda on their blog at www.smithsinuganda.com.

It doesn't matter where you live – people love to talk about the weather.  You may think that citizens of a country like Uganda, which comfortably straddles the equator and where people are generally unfamiliar with terms like “zero visibility” and “whiteout conditions,” would not be fussed whether it is 25 or 28 degrees Celsius on any given day of the year.  However, as we've found out, there is an unmet need for accurate and advanced forecasting of daily and seasonal weather, and extreme weather alerts.

It's taken me the better part of 10 months to figure out that when you wake up, look out the window and see sunny, crystal-clear blue skies that this is a sure sign it will rain the rest of the day.  If it starts off raining then it's most likely going to be a beautiful day.  I used to leave the house in the morning and ask Omara (our gardener, and a highly accurate weather forecaster) what the weather would be like.  He would scan the clear blue horizon, think for a moment and forecast rain. And he was almost always right.  No amount of searching the skies or wind direction would give me any indicator other than the obvious lack of clouds.

Every day, the independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, runs a four-day weather forecast feature on page 2.  In an attempt to understand the secret to Omara's uncanny forecasting ability, I used to try to match the Monitor's forecast to what would actually happen on a given day.  There is no correlation – I might as well have been using a Magic 8 Ball.  I now believe that the Monitor editor knows this and attempts to cover all weather eventualities by having no (or at least an indecipherable) relationship between the weather graphic and the text description of the weather that day.  Here's a pretty typical example:

The Daily Monitor, a newspaper in Kampala, has an interesting -- and inconsistent -- way of showing its predictions of  the Ugandan weather. The Daily Monitor, a newspaper in Kampala, has an interesting -- and inconsistent -- way of showing its predictions of the Ugandan weather.

Why does "Today" have a thunderstorm graphic and a text description of “Day partly cloudy and night clear,” yet Friday is the only graphic that looks like cloudy and no rain, yet says "Thunderstorms in the day, clear at night" – but then that exact same text description is used with the thunderstorm graphic for Saturday?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah ... I don't understand!

As comical as this might seem, inaccurate weather forecasting can be a real problem – one that Grameen Foundation is helping to sort out in Uganda by providing timely, accurate and detailed weather forecasts to farmers across the country through our network of 800+ Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs).  This is not so that Ugandans will know whether or not to put on their jackets in the morning (which is more of a life-or-death thing for Canadians in February), but to help with vital agricultural decisions like planting or harvesting, and to help fishermen take precautions when extreme weather events, such as floods or lightning strikes, affect Lake Victoria.

We are currently doing this in two ways. First, we’re aggregating weather forecasts from a variety of sources to provide daily, five-day and seasonal forecasts.  We also have our CKWs in Kasese running a pilot program where we've equipped them with rain gauges to gather readings for the Uganda Department of Meteorology (UDOM), to give early warning of possible floods.

Here are examples of daily and seasonal weather forecasts that our CKWs access on their IDEOS smartphones when meeting with farmers to provide advice:

A weather report, as depicted on a CKW's smartphone.

A weather report, as depicted on a CKW's smartphone.

Farmers with any kind of mobile phones can access the same weather information – and all of our agricultural content – by calling into our Farmer Call Center or a two-way text-messaging service.

Secondly, we are working with our partners – MTN, Ericsson, the World Meteorological Organization, UDOM, National Lake Rescue Institute and the Kalangala fishing community – to provide a localized weather-alert service to fishing villages on Lake Victoria that saves lives and livelihoods by enabling fisherman and traders to make better decisions about when to go out onto the lake.  The daily weather forecasts and warnings are delivered in local languages to 1,000 fisherman from Kalangala. (Lake Victoria supports Africa's largest inland fishery and produces more than 800,000 tons of fish annually, currently worth about $600 million. Estimates indicate that as many as 5,000 members of the fishing community die in boating accidents on the lake each year due to bad weather conditions.)

These services are one more example of how Grameen Foundation’s AppLab Uganda is delivering unique, high-quality, timely information to rural Ugandans to save lives and improve livelihoods.  In addition, Omara now has some competition!

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