Smartphone Barometric Pressure Sensors: How Google Maps Could Someday Include Weather

barometric sensor dataA recent ACM article delves into the future promise of barometric pressure sensors. In the future, we will see weather forecasts improved by technology the same way that traffic forecasts have. Google Maps uses most smartphones’ self-provided GPS location and timestamp to estimate travel speed. While individual data points may be unreliable, the aggregated data provides us with what we need to develop a thorough understanding of traffic behavior. In the same way, the barometric pressure data from your phone could someday help detect tornadoes or other dangerous weather patterns. Smartphones that already have a barometric pressure sensor include the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 6.

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Google Maps Could Someday Include Weather

Atmospheric Sciences Professor Cliff Mass from the University of Washington believes that Google Maps’ collection of barometric pressure sensor information could be the tipping point for a useful application for all of this data. Just another way that the increasingly connected internet is changing our lives for the better.

We need a really big app to collect the pressures, like Google Maps. I’ve contacted Google, and they haven’t been exactly enthusiastic. The engineers there are, but the management is not highly motivated at this point. If Google Maps collected the pressures while they were getting the speeds for cars, the problem would be almost solved.

Maybe They’ll Buy an Existing Startup

Despite Google’s reluctance to get involved thus far. Several startups have already started harnessing the power of the millions of existing smartphones with barometric pressure sensors. PressureNet and WeatherSignal are two barometric pressure sensor-using apps that are currently available in your smartphone’s app store. The CEO of PressureNet’s developing company Cumulonimbus, Jacob Sheehy, explained why he has chosen to seek strategic partnerships with other up and coming weather apps:

We realized it was very unlikely that 10 million people would download our app. And 10 million in this context is small, 100 million is really our goal here, and we’re not going to get there by people downloading PressureNet.

With double digit percentage growth each month, PressureNet currently has around 400,000 sensors in use. They use Amazon Web Services t store their data and have a total of 750 million atmospheric pressure measurements stored.

What Barometric Pressure Data is Useful?

However, much of the stored data is unusable without context or more data points. The exact pressure measurements are not necessarily indicative of barometric pressure at a specific GPS location due to variables such as altitude and sensor bias. It turns out that all else constant, higher altitude results in lower barometric pressure. The data is good for changes in barometric pressure, which is in turn particularly useful for detecting tornadoes as quickly as we can now see car accidents clog the highway. Think Crichton’s Twister… but better.

Images from Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.