Scott Wilson-Billing knows a thing or two about weather. A self-employed software developer since 1997, he had the opportunity to work for the Met Office, the United Kingdom's national weather provider. During that time, he worked on software that followed the development of hurricanes throughout the world. Since a freelance programmer can only work for the UK government for two years at a time, Wilson-Billing was forced to take a break from developing weather-related software for a while.
He was eventually re-hired by the Met Office, and, along with a partner, spent six months working on a very early "alpha" version of yet another weather app that would work for the latest versions of Android and iOS devices. At the end of this project, Wilson-Billing and his partner decided to develop their own weather app for iOS.
The two-man team knew that there were many free weather apps in the App Store, and that their new offering would need to be unique in some way in order for people to be willing to spend money on it. Named Weather Gods, this app uses the various gods of weather—the god of fire, the god of water, the ice god, the moon god, and so on, to communicate weather conditions. The app is very rich in visual imagery. To make matters even worse for a blind person using VoiceOver, these graphics are highly customized, and do not follow Apple's accessibility implementation, which would provide an out-of-the-box accessible experience for the VoiceOver user. Regrettably, when Weather Gods was initially released, Wilson-Billing had only barely heard of the concept of making apps accessible for iOS. It wasn't until he watched videos from Apple's 2016 Worldwide Developer's Conference that he began to understand what providing accessibility for VoiceOver, the screen reader used on all of Apple's products by visually impaired people, really meant. Sadly, he realized that his weather app wasn't accessible at all.
Wilson-Billing set about learning more on the topic of making apps accessible to the blind. He began doing Google searches that led him to the AppleVis community. He was gratified to receive a lot of feedback on the AppleVis forums from blind people who were willing to help him test his app and make suggestions that would make Weather Gods truly accessible. Wilson-Billing says that beta testers—people who test prerelease versions of software—often use beta versions of an app, but don't always provide a lot of feedback to the developer. His experience with the blind community has been just the opposite. The community regularly uses the app, and provides a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, along the way.
Weather Gods: An App for Blind and Sighted Alike
Through many builds of Weather Gods, and after much input from the blind community, the app began to take on a form that was truly useable by the blind. Wilson-Billing says that he eventually realized the need to develop an app with two personas. For the sighted user, the app provides rich images and charts to communicate information such as hours of sunshine, rainfall, snow amounts, and wind speed, just to name a few examples. Since charts would be difficult to make use of with VoiceOver, this information is presented to the blind user in the form of a timeline that can be easily read through using the screen reader. The same is true for the weather wheel, which, for sighted users, provides hourly weather conditions for a seven-day period. For VoiceOver users, this information is provided by order of importance. This means that information about heavy rain is presented before information about the ultraviolet index, since the ultraviolet index wouldn't be as important during a rain storm.
This approach to accessibility requires a lot more work on the part of the developer, but provides a very customized experience for the VoiceOver user.
Keeping the Lights On for Weather Gods
Much of the weather information found in Weather Gods comes from IBM's Weather Company. IBM now owns The Weather Channel and Weather Underground. To help save on cost, days 3 through 7 of the weather information found in Weather Gods comes from Dark Sky. TimeAndDate.com provides information for sunrise, sunset, and moon phases, while Geonames is used for location information.
When first released, Weather Gods was priced at $3.99 in the U.S., but it now costs $2.99. Wilson-Billing estimates that approximately 65 percent of the app's users are blind. While VoiceOver use is not specifically tracked, Wilson-Billing is able to see how users are accessing information from the app. This allows him to make an educated guess as to whether or not that person is a VoiceOver user. He also believes that blind people are more likely to use Weather Gods on a daily basis than their sighted counterparts. Unfortunately, overall sales of the app have not been enough to cover costs. For this reason, by the time you read this article, Weather Gods will most likely be based on a subscription model. Anyone who has already purchased the app need not fear. You will never be asked to pay for an update to the program. Moving forward, however, new users will have seven days to try the app for free. After the trial has ended, users can pay $1 per quarter to use the app, or $3 for a full year. This means that yearly subscribers will get one quarter for free. Anyone who owns an Apple Watch will receive a fully accessible version of the app on that device as well.
What's Next for Weather Gods?
Wilson-Billing is committed to the continued development of Weather Gods, and there are a lot of things on the roadmap as far as the app's future is concerned. Currently, the user of Weather Gods can enable a wide array of notifications, including information about sunrise and sunset as well as whether it will rain or not. Currently, severe weather notifications are not available from within the app, but Wilson-Billing hopes to change this in a future update. In the past, it was necessary to relaunch Weather Gods each time the user's device was restarted in order to re-enable notification alerts. This is no longer the case with the most recent updates to the program. Another thing on the horizon for Weather Gods is pollen alerts, which should greatly benefit those who suffer from allergies.
For the VoiceOver user, Wilson-Billing plans to add custom actions to the VoiceOver rotor. It might be possible someday to place focus on a particular god such as the ice god, and then use the rotor to move through the next seven days to determine whether any ice is in the forecast.
Finally, the developers of Weather Gods—now a three-person team—hope to eventually release versions of Weather Gods for Apple TV and the Mac.
The Bottom Line
Anyone who has tried to use weather apps with VoiceOver knows the frustration of trying to quickly find the information they are looking for. Graphics-intensive information that catches the eye of the sighted user is often not easily discerned by a blind person using a screen reader. With Weather Gods, this isn't a problem at all, since accessibility is core to the development of this app. The reasonable price, the developer's commitment to accessibility, and the planned enhancements to the product make it worth checking out. By the time you read this, you should be able to get a seven-day free trial of the app so that you can decide for yourself if Weather Gods meets your needs.
By the time you read this, Weather Gods by Meyume Ltd should be available as a subscription that costs $1 per quarter, or $3 per year in the United States with a free, seven-day trial. The app is available for iOS devices as well as the Apple Watch.
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