NOAA's current policy, defined in its Dec. 1 "Policy On Partnerships In The Provision Of Environmental Information," is to "give due consideration to [the capabilities and services of the private sector and academic institutions] and consider the effects of its decisions on the activities of these entities, in accordance with its responsibilities as an agency of the U.S. government, to serve the public interest and advance the nation's environmental information enterprise as a whole."
Under the proposed policy revision, NOAA will "take advantage of existing capabilities and services of commercial and academic sectors to avoid duplication and competition in areas not related to the NOAA mission."
Commercial weather information companies have been particularly eager to avoid competition with the National Weather Service, which is part of NOAA. The issue has strained relationships in the weather enterprise--as insiders refer to the partnership between government, academic, and commercial weather-information organizations--for years.
The Commercial Weather Service Association, an industry trade group, points to 15 instances over the past few years where it contends the National Weather Service has been competing with the private sector. One of the NWS practices the CWSA finds objectionable is the use of Flash technology to format weather forecasts for distribution to hotel guests via printer, fax, or the Internet, a market some commercial providers serve. Another is the NWS's alleged intent to develop free software such as desktop weather applications and weather plug-ins for Internet browsers.
The CWSA also objects to the NWS's willingness to distribute weather information to wireless devices. "In 2003, it was discovered that the National Weather Service was offering a growing base of weather information to wireless devices over at least two separate URLs," the CWSA complains. "These value-added products are in direct competition with the services offered by America's weather industry and the communications industry and undermine significant investments that have been made in new technologies and communication of weather information over those technologies. At least one formal complaint was filed with the National Weather Service over this activity, but it was rebuffed."
The situation came to a head in December when NOAA abandoned its 1991 noncompetition and nonduplication policy as a result of recommendations by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. That change led U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in April to introduce the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 (S.786), a bill that would impose restrictions on how the NWS makes its data available to the public in order to accommodate private-sector interests.
While S.786 hasn't seen broad support, it does appear to have made NOAA more eager to consider the concerns of the companies commercializing its data.
Raymond Ban, executive VP of meteorology at The Weather Channel, thinks NOAA realizes it needs a policy that's more cautious about collisions with private-sector interests. "I think the feedback they've received from the community, particularly the CWSA and as a result of S.786, all of that has essentially made them say, 'We didn't hit the target,' " he says.
That may be because it's a moving target. As the National Research Council pointed out when it issued its 2003 report on the weather enterprise, interpretations of the 1991 noncompetition policy differ.
The National Weather Service, the council noted, "believes the guideline reaffirms its mission of creating and disseminating forecasts to the public at large and has continued to release general weather forecasts. But some private companies took the policy to mean that the Weather Service should never provide information to the general public when the private sector could do so, except for warnings. Meanwhile, interpretation of the policy was further complicated by a new federal rule requiring full and open access to all government data."
The National Research Council's policy recommendations, spelled out in its 2003 report "Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships In Weather And Climate Services," recognize that the Internet has changed the data-distribution game for good. But they offer only vague guidance about how to reconcile the government's obligation to offer taxpayer-funded weather data for free with the private sector's desire to offer it for a fee.
In a statement announcing the release of the Fair Weather report, committee chair John Armstrong, retired VP of research at IBM, championed ambiguity and negotiation rather than a clear delineation of public, private, and academic sector territory. "It is counterproductive to set detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can issue particular forecasts or products," he said. "Instead, efforts should focus on improving the process by which the private and public providers of weather information interact."
NOAA appears to have taken that advice to heart in soliciting public comment. Edward Johnson, director of strategic planning and policy at the National Weather Service, says the agency hopes to hear what people think about the proposed rewording of its information sharing policy.
Johnson also has his own thoughts on the subject. "I'm just convinced the U.S. government has got it right," he says. "Making government information available to everyone at little or no cost stimulates the economy."
The Weather Channel's Ban says the proposed change is a step in the right direction. But he hopes NOAA will act on another recommendation in the Fair Weather report: establishing an independent advisory committee to provide NOAA with ongoing input from public, private, and academic stakeholders in the weather enterprise.