511 – A Lifesaver
When the going gets tough, Leon Osborne's science really gets going.
The University of North Dakota meteorologist developed a surface weather information system now widely used nationwide. And it's a real lifesaver, especially in places like North Dakota, where winter weather is a six-month challenge.
Osborne, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, also is well-known in agriculture circles — especially in North Dakota — for the uncanny precision of his winter forecasts and spring moisture predictions.
"That's how we add value with our research," said Osborne, a jovial man who loves talking about weather, so much so that he delivers scores of presentations annually to groups such as wheat growers, schools, and ag conventions.
"This is value added to the state, started with our changing the paradigm of what is now called 511, a phone number designated by the Federal Communications Commission for traveler information," Osborne said. "North Dakota and South Dakota partnered with UND to develop this technology back in the early 1990s.
Then, working with local groups, we added more value by becoming involved statewide with agriculture as a go-to climate and weather information service."
The big impetus behind the 511 system was safety.
"Severe weather conditions, such as blinding ground blizzards, account for 1.5 million car accidents annually and more than 7,000 fatalities, with an annual economic impact of $25 billion," Osborne said.
Osborne recollects that the development of the 511 surface weather info system paralleled the development of today's computing.
"We actually started our ag weather back in the 1980s with the AgWINDS project, where we provided software to farmers and ranchers to help them make decisions on agricultural practices using computer-based weather applications," Osborne said. "(This was) well before the Internet was widely available."
Osborne's team leveraged their work on AgWINDS with research on ATWIS (Advanced Traveler Weather Information System) in the mid-1990s. Their efforts led to the Advanced Traveler Information System (ATIS) that is now known as 511 across the nation.
"When we started, the entire concept of distributed computing was just starting to take hold," said Osborne, whose 511 system in North Dakota includes a network of remotely operated roadside weather stations that provide up-to-the-minute condition reports to help alert drivers.
"Windows 3.1 came along with the first broadly accepted graphical user interface, or GUI, that we now take for granted. It revolutionized how personal computing was done, and allowed for desktop delivery of handy weather info," he said. "Prior to that, you got weather forecasts and updates from your TV weather person, or you had a satellite dish receiving that kind of information from DTN — every elevator in North Dakota had one of those.
"That planted the seed with us for a way to provide weather info that was a lot more responsive to what the needs were, so we launched a proposal to create a distributed ag weather network," said Osborne, who got his bachelor's degree in physics from Utah State University and his master's degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma.
"In that development process, we collaborated with John Enz, a faculty member at North Dakota State University and state climatologist. We secured funding for several North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network (NDAWN) stations, and then more than doubled the size of that network," Osborne said. He noted that another key factor was that North Dakota-based agricultural producer and marketing groups provided annual funding to support NDAWN.
"It was a magical time for me because we got a lot of direct support from John (D. Odegard, UND Aerospace founder), doing a lot of different things to get this research on track," Osborne said. "That was way back, it seems, when we had daily weather maps hanging on the wall.
"We call it a weather mesonet to support agriculture; that kind of launched us by having the needed data, and we learned how to efficiently and effectively distribute this information," Osborne said. "It was a struggle at first because we had inadequate tools to work with, given our ambitious goals. It was the first year of our research when Microsoft Windows 3.1 came out, and it was quickly adopted."
Osborne is talking about a company he started with his wife, Kathy, and two other partners, Mark Owens and Bryan Hahn, fellow UND researchers. A classic "in-the-basement" launch, it was recently sold to an international company that continues Meridian's operations in Grand Forks.
"That's the kind of value added that produces high-tech jobs," Osborne said, noting that over the years Meridian has hired dozens of UND alums, mostly atmospheric and computer scientists.
"We also produce weekly agricultural weather summaries for Agweek (a regional farm publication published by the Grand Forks Herald)," he said.
Justifiably proud of the ag weather connections he's worked on over the last 30 years, Osborne is clearly enthusiastic about his 511 and AgWINDS concepts.
"Our 511 system is used across the country, and for sure, it's significant to North Dakota travel safety," said Osborne, who is still director of the Surface Transportation Weather Research Center and the Regional Weather Information Center at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
Juan Miguel Pedraza
University & Public Affairs writer