How a Hashtag Snowballed into a Hyperlocal Weather Service
It all started with a hashtag and a whim. Shortly after tweeting his take on the day with #DLWS, David Leonard found himself at the centre of a hyper-local weather service.
The first Monday of April had Torontonians in a tizzy. Aside from it being the most dreaded day of the week, the city woke to the effects of a late-season polar vortex – this a mere week after a resplendent Easter Sunday, one where barbecues were lit, trails were hiked, and patios were perched upon. Now, once again pulling out their Sorels and issuing Facebook mea culpas for having prematurely taken off their snow tires, the city’s citizens were grappling with the significant accumulation blanketing the first vestiges of spring.
With this weather came the requisite grousing. After all, it is unwritten Canadian rule that one must comment on the weather, always, and in particular when it’s a doozy. Detailed stories with colleagues and passing chats with baristas all revolved around how bad the roads were, how much had to be shovelled, and more than a few utterances of “I’m so ready for spring.” For many, that caustic commentary came with a hashtag: #DLWS.
The hashtag was started on a whim by journalist David Leonard about six years ago. One cold winter night after leaving an event, Leonard did his civic duty and took to Twitter to comment on the weather. “It was especially cold and I just made some casual tweet about it,” he says, noting that as a self-conscious joke he called it the David Leonard Weather Service. The next morning he tweeted again while out for a walk, and then daily, and a few of his media friends (Leonard is currently director of events at Walrus magazine) starting retweeting and participating.
Leonard says the hashtag really started to snowball, as it were, after the next big storm. “I started doing it every day and about 10 or 15 people were doing it daily, too. Then it became really interesting – a sort of hyperlocal weather report. Someone in Riverdale would say something and that would be different than someone in Etobicoke or Downsview. You’d start to get this really interesting picture of how weather is different is different parts of the city.”
Soon, Leonard says, people started adopting the hashtag whenever there was a major weather event. “As a storm comes, people get excited about it because they want to talk about the storm. People gathered around this hashtag and it became a conversation piece. And that, still to this day, happens pretty much with most major storms. People get excited and this hashtag is the place where they gather.”
Years later, #DLWS continues to serve as Toronto's virtual weather water cooler, as the city witnessed in early April. We caught up with the man behind the eponymous hashtag to find out how and why something that started as a humourous lark continues to get people talking.
People love a good storm
Leonard says people’s interest in weather skews dramatic, which is to say #DLWS is generally rather quiet on perfectly pleasant days. “Unless it's the first nice day of the year or maybe the last freakishly nice day of the year, people don't really tweet that much [during nice weather]. But the days where there's something interesting happening – crazy snow or big lightning or some huge wind or some weird smell – you really see a lighting up.”
Weather is hyperlocal
One of the things that happens when people look out their windows and comment in the moment is that you get an extremely accurate view of what’s happening – more so that official weather forecasts. So people in one end of town that’s currently experiencing torrential rain can act as a siren for others across town. “My favourite thing that happens is when people are watching a storm come across a city and you see people helping each other,” says Leonard. “Like when someone in the west says, ‘This thing is really bad. If you're not inside in the next five minutes, you're going to get dumped on,’ and then you see people in the east taking their laundry off the line. I love that kind of thing because it actually shows this kind of community coming together. It's not just a report on the weather; it becomes this hyperlocal service that actually helps people.”
Leonard notes this is also vital when it comes to air travel: “The weather at Billy Bishop Airport and the weather at Pearson are so radically different. And if you're reading the Pearson weather report and you're at the Billy Bishop airport, it's not going to be necessarily that helpful to you.”
It’s even been scientifically useful
One of Leonard’s most interesting encounters was with a climate scientist who was referencing the #DLWS data to map against dated weather reports. “He was watching how people responded to freakishly warm weather or incredibly strong storms or flooding or whatever, and he would he would link to actual historical weather charts from that day and then be like, ‘Yeah, this is a crazy day. Take a look at this historical regular for this day and this is an absolute anomaly,” which I thought was kind of neat,” says Leonard.
But it’s not really about the weather
When Leonard issued his very first weather report via tweet, he wasn’t really informing people it was damn cold out – they already knew that. He was telling people how he felt about being damn cold. And that, he says, is the really interesting result of #DLWS. People’s emotional reaction is the draw over the functional element of reporting the weather.
“It’s less about what the temperature. It's about the idea that different people experience the same weather in different ways,” he says. For instance, 12 degrees can be considered cold in late May, but in deep Febrary 12 degrees is an aberration. "It depends on the day," says Leonard. "If someone goes outside and says ‘I went out in my scarf, what was I thinking? Man, it's nice out today.’ Then you understand that it's a better day than you anticipated it might be.”
Which is exactly what happened on April 4, minus the lovely weather, when seemingly all of winter’s pent-up snow was dumped across Toronto as the tulips began to break ground. “The weather service, I think, is very human,” says Leonard. “Very few people use it to tell you what the wind speed is. It's really people talking about how they're feeling that day and using the weather as a vehicle for that.”
For his part, Leonard continues to share how he’s feeling, wherever he travels. In fact, he says people contribute from Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, creating their own weather-service communities. The day we spoke, Leonard was in Montreal. His verdict: “It's colder than I expected it would be. I wish I had my scarf today. I was out for about five minutes and I thought, ‘Oh man, I'm too late to go back, but I really want to get that scarf.’ ”