Weather apps and services use a mix of data from government agencies, private companies like IBM, and independent weather stations.
There are many different weather apps and services, but how different is each app’s data? Where do they get their information from? It turns out, many of them might have the same source for your specific location, but how they get that data can be complicated.
Weather apps probably seem simple on the surface: you get the current temperature, a forecast for the next several days, and possibly radar maps and links to news stories. A few apps go above and beyond with more specialized features, like push notifications for weather warnings, a cleaner interface, or more options for visual displays like maps.
Most of the work that goes into weather apps and services is collecting the core data. Most weather apps combine data from several different sources, depending on what data each service provides and the areas they cover. For example, one data provider might have many weather stations in France or Australia, but no stations in Canada. Mixing data from different providers means an app can work in more regions.
Some weather providers have their own apps and sites for checking weather reports, like Apple Weather and AccuWeather, while others function as just data sources for other apps to use. Adding to the confusion, some weather providers fill holes in their own data with data from other providers, depending on the region. It’s like how cellular networks operate — T-Mobile might have roaming agreements with AT&T to ensure you still have some coverage in areas where T-Mobile itself might not have towers, and vice-versa.
That’s a lot of generalization and not a lot of specific examples. Let’s take a look at weather reporting in the United States and how its data (along with data from other governments, companies, and independent organizations) is mixed together to show up in your weather app.
How the US Collects Weather Data
Much of the raw weather data in the US comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA for short, which is a division of the federal government’s Department of Commerce. The NOAA is tasked with maintaining coastal ecosystems, supporting marine commerce (like fisheries), and climate and weather research. Under the NOAA is the National Weather Service, or NWS, which provides weather, water, and climate data.
The NWS collects surface weather data with many Automated Surface Observing Systems or ASOS. They are operated in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Defense (DoD) — yes, this is a lot of acronyms. The stations continuously collect data about sky conditions, visibility, ambient temperature, pressure, obstructions to vision (like fog), wind speeds, and more. There are over 900 ASOS sites in the United States, mostly located at airports. The FAA has a map of all observation stations.
Example of an ASOS NWS
There are also some older data stations, called Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) units, that still make up some of the government’s weather data. According to the NOAA, they “generally report at 20-minute intervals and, unlike ASOS, do not report special observations for rapidly changing weather conditions.” Both types of weather stations can only detect weather directly above them, so ASOS data is usually augmented with human observations.
The NWS also collects data from oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water with a network of automated buoys. Weather balloons are also used twice a day at around 92 sites in the United States, which help predict forecasts and storms. On top of that, the NOAA owns and operates 11 satellites — five in geostationary orbit, five that orbit the Earth’s poles, and one placed further out in the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L1. There are also six more satellites that are operated by NOAA but are owned by other agencies, such as the Air Force and NASA.
The NOAA’s current satellite missions NOAA
The wide-reaching network of ground stations, buoys, balloons, and satellites gives the US government more than enough data to report active weather conditions and forecasts. You can view the data directly from weather.gov, which shows current conditions, forecasts, radar maps, and even technical data for any location in the United States. Pro tip: that’s a great site for checking the weather that won’t bombard you with push notification requests and unrelated news stories.
Importantly, most of the NOAA’s data is public, and the data is shared directly with companies and other organizations through the NOAA Open Data Dissemination (NODD) Program, including Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft. As a result, much of the weather reporting in the United States, especially long-term forecasts, is based on NOAA data to some extent.
How the Data Reaches Your Weather App
Many weather apps and services in the US don’t connect directly to the NOAA’s data — they use an API from a third-party company, which might also be mixed with data from other agencies or private companies. For example, IBM Cloud is a popular global provider of weather data, which uses data from the NOAA and many other sources, plus additional processing from proprietary tools like a custom-built supercomputer.
Google Search uses The Weather Channel for weather data, which in turn is based on IBM Cloud
The Weather Channel and Weather Underground are both owned by IBM and primarily use weather info from IBM Cloud. The APIs provided by IBM, The Weather Channel, and Weather Underground are in turn used by other apps and services. Google uses The Weather Channel for weather information. MSN Weather, which appears in Bing, Windows, and other Microsoft services, uses data primarily from a company called Foreca, which in turn merges data from 50 different sources (including NOAA and JPL in the United States).
Apple has been working on its own weather data platform over the past few years. It acquired the weather app and data provider Dark Sky in 2020, turning the API into WeatherKit, and updating the Weather app on all Apple devices to use the company’s platform. Before that (iOS 15.2 and earlier on iPhones), Apple’s weather apps relied entirely on The Weather Channel. Apple Weather by itself is still mixing data from other sources, including NOAA in the US, the Met Office in the UK, and so on.
Mixing it All Up
That’s a lot of information to take in, so let’s summarize. Weather apps get their information from data providers like IBM, Apple, Foreca, and others. Those providers sometimes do specialized processing to provide more accurate info or mix in data from personal weather stations, but much of the raw information comes from government agencies like the NOAA. Those agencies also share data, resources, and expertise with each other.
So, where does your weather app get its information? The answer is… a lot of places! There are dozens of government agencies, companies, and connected groups working together to share and improve on each other’s data. Several different apps might use the same data source for current conditions for a specific location — for example, an automated station owned by the NOAA. Forecasts, radar maps, and other information are much more of a collaborative effort.