Understanding Grímsvötn

Another Icelandic volcano has blown its top and, as you might expect, the media has gone batshit. Even otherwise commendable publications like Nature have lost their heads and are calling Grímsvötn “the new Eyjafjallajökull” (hint: it’s completely different). So here’s a quick look at the key information sources you need to understand what’s going on.

Firstly, let’s just talk about pronunciation. Whereas I could understand the reluctance to attempt Eyjafjallajökull, even though it’s not that hard once you’re got your tongue round it, Grímsvötn is much easier. An Icelandic friend says the í is like the ‘ea’ in ‘eating’ and ö is a bit like the e in ‘the’ or the u in ‘duh’ so basically a bit of a schwa. Repeat after me, then: Greamsvuhtn. Easy. Yet despite it being a relatively simple name to pronounce, at least one BBC news presenter bottled it and said something like “A volcano in Iceland” and, instead of tackling Eyjafjallajökull said, “Another volcano in Iceland”… Wimp.

Right, so, horses’ mouths. There are plenty of them, so there’s no excuse for asking the Independent’s travel editor for comment (BBC, I’m lookin’ at you again!), who frankly probably knows jack shit about volcanos. Your key sources for Icelandic eruptions are:

1. The Icelandic Met Office
The IMO provides so much data that it’s hard to see why so many news orgs ignore it. You don’t get much closer to the horse’s mouth than this and, shock-horror, they speak English! Good lord, who’d’ve thunk it. Key pages on the IMO website:

  • News: Not updated very often, but still an important source
  • Updates: Updated more regularly, more useful info and links
  • Earthquakes: Last 48 hours worth of earthquakes. It’d be awesome if someone captured this and made a nice visualisation. And if you’re missing data, just email and ask them – they’re very nice, as I found out last year when they sent me the archival data for Eyjafjallajökull.

The IMO have a lot more data, such as tremor, inflation, and seismic moment, but it will take an expert to interpret that for you.

2. The VAAC
The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre is run by the UK Met Office and provides maps of the ash cloud forecasts, which it updates regularly. Key links:


If you look at the full size version of this, you’ll see more clearly that there are three coloured lines: The blue line is labeled FL350/FL550, the green line is FL200/FL350 and the red line is SCF/FL200. The blue line is the highest part of the ash cloud between FL350 and FL550, i.e. between 35,000 and 55,000 feet. FL means “flight level” and the number is how many hundreds of feet above ground level you’re looking at. The green line is between 20,000 and 35,000 ft, which is about where jets cruise (at 33,000 ft), and the red line is between surface and 20,000 ft. VAGs are produced regularly and include four forecasts at 6 hour intervals.

The thing to remember about these VAGs is that they are forecasts based on current volcanic activity and wind forecasts, so they can and do change.

3. Regulators & air traffic control
At this stage, I’d love to say that the regulators and air traffic control bodies are a great source of info, but they’re not. That’s not going to stop me giving you their links, though.

  • UK Civil Aviation Authority. They also have a Twitter account, but haven’t yet got to grips with the idea of giving people useful information.
  • NATS: The National Air Traffic Services are giving regular updates, but it’s not particularly detailed. I’m pretty sure that the now ‘unofficial’ Twitter account was official this time last year, but either way, NATS should sort out their Twitter presence.
  • EuroControl: The EU air traffic control, also on Twitter, but doing a slightly better job of it.

I would like someone to slap the CAA, NATS and to some extent Eurocontrol round the chops and insist that they get their online acts together. They may think they have something better to do than communicate with the public, but frankly, I can’t think what it might be. At times like this, we need informed voices from the organisations making and implementing policy decisions to be communicating directly with the public, to counteract the uninformed nonsense we’re fed by our media. Right now, it’s just one great big mess of fail and it’s very disappointing. If any one of you organisations get in touch with me, I’ll go so far as to give you a discount just to see you actually start to engage properly.

4. Erik Klemetti
Frankly, Erik’s work on the Eruptions blog, gathering links and keeping us up to date with what’s happening, blows all the official sources out of the water. Erik has created an awesome community of  people who are constantly on the look out for news and information and sharing it in the comments and, from that smorgasbord, he picks the best links for his posts and provides an expert view on what’s happening as well as some highly accessible explanations. This, to be honest, is the kind of stuff we should be seeing from the UK Met Office, the CAA, NATS and Eurocontrol, not to mention the media.

5. FlightRadar24
Always a fascinating site, FlightRadar24 has now added an ‘Ash Layer’ which superimposes the current forecasts on to their radar map of all the planes currently in the air. Well worth a peek.

6. Mila
Mila have a number of webcams up around Iceland. Currently there’s one working webcam trained on Grímsvötn, and although the picture’s a bit wobbly, when the sun’s up you can clearly see what’s going on. Or not going on: Right now, there’s no plume, but that can of course change at a moment’s notice.


So, that gives you a bunch of sources to check when you want to know what’s going on and you can’t find any actual information in the media. And if you’re like me, you’re still left with a question: What’s going to happen with Grímsvötn and its ash cloud? It’s impossible to predict precisely, but we do know that the ash is heavier and coarser than Eyjafjallajökull’s. We also know that the weather patterns are not the same, and that the eruption is unlikely to go on for as long. So we are probably not looking at a replication of Eyjafjallajökull’s disruption. (“Probably” means that nature can still confound the most sensible of predictions!)

All that said, Iceland is volcanically a highly active country and the lull in activity we’ve seen throughout the history of aviation is not something we should be taking for granted. I wouldn’t panic, though. But nor would I believe everything I read in the media.

The iPad and mobile: ‘How does information relate to movement?’

Last year, days after I took a buyout from The Guardian, I wrote a fun little rant about publishers and their delusional approach to the iPad. Since then Suw and I have bought an iPad and have tried out a number of apps, and one of those apps was The Daily.

The shortcomings of the interface and the app have been well covered. (The Daily, now with 20% more crash-tastic badness.) However, rather than focus on the poor interface or lousy execution, I’d like to focus on the bland content, something you don’t usually get to say about Murdoch content. You can say a lot of things about Fox or The Sun but you can rarely criticise Rupe for making boring content, until now. I’m from the US. I read a lot of news about home, as any expat does, but for the life of me, I don’t understand why I should care about 95% of the stuff that I have read in The Daily. It’s like a crappy CD-ROM version of USAToday on a day when they’ve given the staff writers the day off and have all the interns write about their pet issues. The Daily: The publication that doesn’t know what it is, and in digital content (or any content for that matter), meh never wins.

Michael Wolff, who is no fan of Murdoch, has a scathing piece in Adweek that raises the question of just how long the mogul will support The Daily.

Is The Daily the Heaven’s Gate of mobile? Not just expensive, but inexplicable. Not just a bomb, but an albatross.

Ranting aside though, Wolff points out something really key, thinking of the iPad as a mobile device:

Meanwhile, the mobile form expands and grows, driven by a basic question that most publishers have seemingly not asked: How does information relate to movement?

Moreover, how does the iPad relate to real-time information or time-shifted but frequently updated information? One of my favourite apps on the iPad is the FT. The ability to easily shift from live to downloaded content is amazingly functional. It is so useful that it has driven my use of the FT. In the couple of weeks that I used The Daily, neither the information or the format did anything for me. I’d rather have the more traditional site paradigm and the simple yet elegant functionality of the FT iPad app than the rather showy and useless interface candy of The Daily.

Publishers have rarely thought about how the web and now mobile change how information is consumed. They have a product that they want to sell, and they only see the web and mobile as different containers to sell it in. They don’t think much about how those platforms change the way we relate to information. It’s as if we were still in the early 1950s, producing radio programmes with pictures for TV. What is frustrating for those of us who have been doing this for a while – since the mid-1990s for me – is that we know how to tell stories on the web. We know how digital and mobile change ways that stories can be told.

That said, I’m actually quite optimistic. The iPad has renewed interest in novel digital story telling and design, and I’m even more enthusiastic about HTML5 which opens up all kinds of possibilities for not only the iPad but the desktop, smart TVs and other new devices. However, it’s going to take some digital thinking rather than thinking that sees digital as just another vehicle for print.

Linking and journalism: The Workflow issue

There was an interesting discussion about linking and journalism amongst a number of journalists in North America. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm and  Alex Byers, a web producer for Politico in Washington, both collected the conversation using Storify. It covers a lot of well worn territory in this debate, and I’m not going to rehash it.

However, one issue in this debate focused on the workflow and content management systems. New York Times editor Patrick LaForge said:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/palafo/status/70668697051725824″]

Workflow and how that is coded into the CMS is a huge issue for newspapers. For two years when I was at The Guardian, most of my work was on our blogging platform, Movable Type. Movable Type had scaling issues, as did almost every blogging platform back in 2006 when I started at The Guardian. However, Movable Type and other blogging platforms also make it ridiculously easy easy to create content – rich, heavily linked multimedia content. It was so much easier than anything I had ever used, especially when coupled with easy to use production tools such as Ecto and MarsEdit.

However, due to the scaling problems with Movable Type, The Guardian moved its blogging onto its main content management system. We didn’t have a choice. We had outgrown Movable Type. However, I’m being diplomatic in the extreme when I say that the new CMS lacked the ease of content creation and publishing that I had grown accustomed to with Movable Type and WordPress. Furthermore, there was an internal conflict over whether to use the web tools or the print tools to create content, and in the end, the print tools won out. The politics of print versus the web played out even in the tools we used to create content. That was an even more jarring move. It was like trying to create a web story with movable type, and I’m not talking about the blogging platform.

Most newspaper CMSes are more WordPerfect from the 1980s than WordPress. That’s why you have journalism outfits setting up blogs on Tumblr. Creating content on tools like Tumblr is like falling off a bike instead of trying to write caligraphy with a telephone pole. You can build a robust, advanced content management system without making the tools to create content so piggishly ugly, bewilderingly confusing and user surly. However, newspapers code their workflows into their CMSes. The problem is that their workflows aren’t fit for modern purpose.

Newspaper newsroom workflow is still print-centric, apart from a very few exceptions. The rhythm of the day, the focus of the tools and much of the thinking is still for that one deadline every day, when the newspaper goes to the presses. From this post by Doc Searls on news organisations linking to sources (or not linking as the case may be), see this comment from Brian Boyer about his shop, The Chicago Tribune:

At the Chicago Tribune, workflows and CMSs are print-centric. In our newsroom, a reporter writes in Microsoft Word that’s got some fancy hooks to a publishing workflow. It goes to an editor, then copy, etc., and finally to the pagination system for flowing into the paper.

Only after that process is complete does a web producer see the content. They’ve got so many things to wrangle that it would be unfair to expect the producer to read and grok each and every story published to the web to add links.

When I got here a couple years ago, a fresh-faced web native, I assumed many of the similar ideas proposed above. “Why don’t they link?? It’s so *easy* to link!”

I’m not saying this isn’t broken. It is terribly broken, but it’s the way things are. Until newspapers adopt web-first systems, we’re stuck.

Wow, that’s a really effed up workflow by 2011 standards, but a lot of newspaper newsrooms operate on some variation of that theme. It’s an industrial workflow operating in a digital age. It’s really only down to ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking that allows such a patently inefficient process to persist. Seriously, has no one really thought that it’s easier to export plain text from HTML than to bolt on a bunch of links, images and the odd YouTube video to a text story destined for a dead tree? Want to cut some costs and increase the quality of your product? Sort out your outdated industrial workflow, save a lot of money, hire more journalists and improve your web and print products. Simples. (Well, after sorting out your workflow, hire a digital sales team, and then you can hire even more journalists. That’s a post for another time.)

LinkedIn as a source of traffic

Earlier this year I did some work for OldWeather.org, a citizen science project that is transcribing weather and other data from old ships logs. As part of their website progress assessment, I hand-analysed their web traffic referrers to see where people were coming from and whether we were reaching our core communities. One of the things I found was that whilst Facebook sent over two orders of magnitude more visitors than LinkedIn, LinkedIn was responsible for much higher quality visitors. Visitors from LinkedIn visited an average of 17 pages per visit, staying for 34 minutes with a bounce rate of 33%, compared to Facebook’s 1.8 pages per visit, 1:41 minutes on site, and 79% bounce.

The quality difference is stark and indicates that for OldWeather.org, perhaps a bit more promotion in LinkedIn might be in order. But is LinkedIn capable of the same volume of visitors that Facebook can provide? Facebook still provides a far higher overall share of time on site compared to LinkedIn, although on some sites (this one included) a single page view isn’t all that useful in terms of the site being able to fulfil its remit. Lots of single-page-view visitors aren’t as valuable as fewer multi-page-view visitors.

According to Business Insider, recent changes to LinkedIn has upped their ante quite significantly.

Out of nowhere, Business Insider started seeing real referral traffic from LinkedIn last month. […]

LinkedIn product manager Liz Walker tells us the traffic is coming from a bunch of sources – mostly new products like LinkedIn.com/Today, newsletters, and LinkedIn News.

It seems to me that, if these visitor quality stats and this new trend in volume hold true, then LinkedIn is successfully shifting from being a site often marginalised in social media outreach strategies to one that should be central. After all, with traffic it’s not just the volume you should be interested in but the quality of visitors as well.