Meteorologists Are Using Eye-Tracking Tech to Improve Weather Forecasting

NOAA Forecasters will be able to sift through more data faster after reviewing their own eye patterns.
May 24, 2017, 3:00pm

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the body responsible for weather and climate information, has a big data problem. If deployed, NOAA's new radar technology will give forecasters a richer volume of data to work with. But they'll have to adapt to handling the huge load of information.

Katie Wilson, meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory, believes eye tracking, the technology that measures human gaze, will provide the key to unlock the hidden potential of the deluge of data that their advanced gear is generating.


"Forecasters could receive volumetric radar updates of storms four to five times as frequently as what they receive in operations today," Wilson told Motherboard in an email. "The benefit of rapidly-updating radar data is that forecasters are able to track trends in storm processes more easily."

However, Wilson pointed, finding a way to integrate these faster radar updates into the warning decision process remains a challenge. "In the real world, forecasters may have to process these data for hours at a time," she said.

Since 2015, NOAA has been using eye tracking gear manufactured by Swedish company Tobii to study how forecasters analyze radar data. The researchers hope to find new ways to efficiently visualize greater amounts of radar data in real time. As forecasters go about their business gazing at the video monitors, the eye-tracking devices installed under their monitors silently record their eye movements using of high-frequency cameras and computer vision algorithms.

The recording is then studied to compare the order of processes occurring among the forecasters taking part in the program. "We can overlay forecasters' eye gaze data onto a video of their computer screen activity to understand where they were looking, and qualitative data can provide context for why they were looking at the computer screen in a certain way," Wilson says.

How does this actually help? "Attention is closely tied to cognition, and we therefore have used eye tracking to try and learn more about forecasters' related cognitive processes as they analyze radar data and make warning decisions," Wilson explained. "These conclusions are encouraging for further investigation of how forecasters' eye movement behavior relate to the analysis of weather data in general."

"They are fascinated to see how rapidly their eyes dart around the screen and move between different portions of data."

Wilson also points out that the data can help them study the efficiency of their tools' interfaces in presenting data visualization to the forecasters, and find gaps that need to be fixed.

At the end of each data collection, forecasters view a replay of their eye tracking data overlaid on their recent computer screen activity. "They are fascinated to see how rapidly their eyes dart around the screen and move between different portions of data," Wilson said. "I think viewing one's own eye-tracking data would help forecasters learn about and become more aware of their own radar interrogation behaviors. This in itself would be useful as a training tool."


The School of Industrial Systems and Engineering at University of Oklahoma is providing the Tobii Pro eye-tracking system that Wilson and her team are using. The analysis software, Tobii Pro Studio, comes at a $5,000 annual cost.

NOAA is testing the new radars on a broader scale to determine whether they will be an affordable replacement for their current radar system. Sor far, the tests have proven that it is faster and more efficient. The result of the research that Wilson and her team are leading, which will be published in fall, will be crucial part of the decision making process.

"NOAA is a prime example of how eye tracking can be used as a training tool to fill the digital skills gap," said Tom Englund, President of Tobii Pro, who also corresponded with Motherboard. "Eye tracking provides a precise means for visualizing how and why a worker performs a task a certain way, insights the workers themselves might not be conscious of," Englund said.

Different industries can use these insights to train workers on how to use sophisticated equipment or optimize the layout and interface of their equipment for better access and usage. Tobii is already working with LFV, the Swedish air navigation service provider, to study and improve how air traffic controllers distribute their attention, work and engage with their radar equipment.

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