Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Wisdom of Crowds Meets School Closings

We are suffering yet another blast of snow in the Boston area this morning, just as we were beginning to see the first signs of lawn and patio.  Schools are cancelled up and down the eastern part of the state.  Last night, as I watched our youngest daughter work the Web, I was reminded again just how much things have changed in the last generation.

When I was in high school and a winter storm approached, the radio was our best and sometimes only source for no-school news.  We would stay glued to WBZ where an announcer started with the "As" and worked his way to the "Zs."  If we were listening for, say, Dighton-Rehoboth, and happened to tune in at "Eastham" or "Easton," we were done for 10 or 15 minutes until the list recycled.  Some schools might call in at 5 a.m., some at 5:30 a.m. and yours at 6 a.m., which meant real vigilance in being present for each recycle of the "D" schools.  TV would sometimes help but it seems like there was less local news back in the day.

Last night our daughter was tracking her classmate's snow chatter on Facebook.  Theoretically, no student should have any inside information on school closing, yet it's strange how often the consensus of the chatter turns out to be correct.

She had another website open, this one operated by a classmate whom friends call "the Weatherman."  Apparently he loves all things weather and has become something of an oracle when it comes to no-school closings.  So, the kids turn to this "peer expert" for insight.

Finally, my daughter had a third site up and was watching a "No School Number" which--and I'm not sure where this comes from--is a percentage forecast (between 1 and 100) as to the chances of the local school being closed.  I assume it factors in some parts of the local forecast, other nearby school-closings, how many snow days the kids have already had, and ???

She also had the school's website up, but finds that to be the last and worst source for school-closing news.

The wisdom of crowds.  Inside information.  Peer experts.  Big Data.  Not a radio in sight, the TV turned off, and the "official" school site largely ignored.

When I went to bed last night it had not even begun snowing.  Facebook was mixed but mostly positive.  The peer expert had predicted no school.  The "No School Number," much to my daughter's delight, was at 99.   At 5:45 this morning I received a text (as did thousands of other kids and parents, I assume) from the school saying classes had been cancelled.

Once upon a time, the school superintendent believed he (or she) made the final determination on school closings: get up early, look outside, call the local street departments, listen to the radio, and make the call.

Now, in the age of the Web--well, it doesn't take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.