Poncho: The Best Weather Service You've Never Heard Of

The weather. It's all anyone talks about these days. But there's never been one single service that gets it right, or even bothers to tell you what you actually need to know. Well, Betaworks' Poncho, a new weather service, might have just figured it all out—with a simple text message in the morning.

With constant internet access and real-time data at our disposal, the simple act of checking the weather has gotten rather complicated, when all you need to know is whether or not you need a jacket and/or umbrella. Launched back in mid-April, Poncho is the brainchild of Kuan Huang, a resident hacker at Betaworks, who's looking to change just that.

"We're not a real-time weather service. Poncho is something you read in the morning to help you plan your day. We're trying to help optimize your routine," Huang recently told me.

If anyone can dream up a better system, it's Betaworks. These are the same folks who resuscitated Digg in just six weeks, created one of the most addictive iOS games in recent memory, and launched a new RSS reader this past week.

Ironically, Huang admits to never having checked the weather before joining Betaworks and starting Poncho. He says the most useful weather service was his mother who would alert him to any drastic shifts in temperature while he was in college. "I went to school in China and would study late in the library till 2 or 3 AM. She'd never tell me the exact temperature or wind speed, she'd just tell me the information I needed to know," Huang reminisces. That experience served as inspiration for Poncho's weather service, which is personalized and context-based.

When you sign up for Poncho—limited to New York City for now—you fill out a quick survey of your habits and routines, like what time you wake up or what train you take, and whether or not you have pets or allergies, and when you usually leave work. Oh, and you're zip code, not the city you live in. Once you've done all that, you can opt to have a custom weather forecast texted or emailed to you in the morning when you wake up. Huang and a contract writer come up with the copy the night before and like clockwork, Huang gets up at 5:30 to make sure the information is still accurate for the day before pulling the trigger. Take, for example, a few texts I've received in recent weeks:

  • Partly cloudy skies & a clear evening. Temps hitting the low 80s. You guys, could this change our attitudes about Mondays?
  • Prime June day in the low 80s. Hot enough, but comfortable. June, you're much chiller than other months. Looking at you, July.
  • It'd be all fire hydrant sprinklers if we were in old school NYC. Similar to yesterday with temps in the high 80s. Get tan or get to shade.

Now, if you take the train or drive, the web version of your forecast (below) would tell you of any delays on your particular line or whether or not you had to move your car to the other side of the street. And if I had a dog, it'd even tell me the best time take the pooch out.

Poncho: The Best Weather Service You've Never Heard Of

Before even writing a line of code, Huang tells me he'd wake up at 5:30 every morning and email 20 people from the Betaworks office to see what information they actually wanted about the weather. He began working on Poncho in February, pulling openly available data from the MTA, New York City Department of Transportation, Weather Underground and Forecast.io, the makers of the Dark Sky iOS app. From those four sources, Poncho is able to tell you exactly what you need to know to go about your day—in plain English.

"My job at Poncho is to explain all that data to people. I don't want to just give you a number," Huang says. "I'll tell you what's actionable."

And an app is in the works, too, though Huang is still figuring out what additional functionality it will give users. For now, he wants Poncho to be a passive experience—something that, in his words, "you'd never have to open." By tracking your habits based on location, Huang thinks he can anticipate your behavior in the future—information that will help him better understand how to deliver the forecast to you.

Poncho: The Best Weather Service You've Never Heard Of

Obviously not a GIF

In recent weeks, Poncho has rolled out a couple of new features, including an animated GIF that refreshes to reflect the day's weather on the site. And in the coming weeks, users will be able to opt into an afternoon edition that pushes an alert to you before you leave work with traffic and weather updates, along with a forecast for the next day.

I've been using Poncho for the better part of the last two months and it hasn't steered me wrong. I've been caught out in the rain once due to my own idiocy and I've only launched the other weather apps I have to check the extended forecast. Checking the weather just isn't something I need to do anymore.

Poncho is limited to New York City for now, and Huang isn't in a rush to expand just yet, though he is looking at San Francisco or Chicago down the road. When I asked when he would be, he simply said, "Not until it's the best experience that it can be." [Poncho]