Rough Weather - InformationWeek

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Rough Weather

Clouds are forming, but this time the threat isn't in Florida's panhandle. Commercial weather providers are feeling the effects of a change in policy at the National Weather Service.

Extreme weather makes weather data extremely valuable. No sooner did Hurricane Dennis slam the Gulf Coast two weeks ago than Hurricane Emily began stirring. Driving rain, 140-mph winds, crushing waves--those and other daily threats, and promises of sunshine, too, cause millions of people to keep close tabs on what's headed their way.

The National Weather Service is the primary collector of weather-related data in the United States, with scientifically generated databases that can affect everything from the price of oil to the number of people injured in a storm. But the government agency finds itself in a developing storm of another kind--a debate over its role as a distributor of publicly funded data and the ramifications of its actions on the private sector.

For more than 100 years, the National Weather Service and its precursor agencies have released data that has found its way to the consuming public, through telegraph dispatches originally and Web sites and cable outlets more recently. In 1991, the National Weather Service adopted a policy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, its parent organization, that prevented it from competing with private-sector distributors of weather information. As a result, most of us get our weather information not from the National Weather Service but from other sources.

A meteorologist works on a weather forecast at the Jacksonville, Fla., airport. -- Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union/AP

A meteorologist works on a weather forecast at the Jacksonville, Fla., airport.

Photo by Will Dickey/Florida Times-Union/AP
But that restriction was lifted in December when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration repealed its noncompete policy, based on recommendations from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. In effect, the change lets the National Weather Service bypass private-sector companies by making its information more accessible to individuals and organizations.

And the National Weather Service has used some of the most up-to-date approaches to do this. In December, it began making data in its National Digital Forecast Database available in XML format. That information can also be accessed as RSS feeds or using a mobile device pointed to certain government Web sites.

The changes, however, pose a threat to some companies in the weather business and have raised questions over how National Weather Service data is handled. In April, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., introduced the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 (S. 786) in an attempt to clarify the responsibilities of the federal agency. Since then, the debate hasn't subsided--and the National Weather Service continues to launch new services. Last month, it introduced Spanish-language forecasts and alerts on its Web sites.

But critics have questioned the proposed legislation from the outset. "The bill is designed to be private-industry friendly," says Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the Weather Underground Inc., which operates a Web site of weather information. "I think it was written as a favor for large weather providers." Masters worries the bill might force his company to purchase weather information from a larger commercial source such as AccuWeather Inc., rather than get it directly from the National Weather Service.

The issue of "competition" between the government's weather agency and public companies was already festering. In June 2003, Sens. Santorum and Conrad Burns, R-Mt., wrote a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, complaining about "chronic and recurring encroachment on the private sector" by the National Weather Service. They charged the agency with pointing Web traffic to preferred sites and providing information via wireless devices "after representing to the private sector that it would not engage in such a practice."

The Commercial Weather Service Association, an industry trade group, is hotter than the Arizona sun. President Steven Root, in an E-mail interview, charges the National Weather Service with "making itself a commercial competitor to America's private weather industry, using taxpayer money to duplicate products and services already freely available to the public" through companies such as AccuWeather, WeatherBank, and the Weather Channel.

Weather Channel executive VP of meteorology Raymond Ban, like many others in the private sector, agrees that the relationship between the government and the commercial weather industry needs to be rethought in keeping with the recommendations of the National Research Council, but he doesn't believe the Santorum bill is the answer. "As the private sector has continued to grow and evolve, all of a sudden the boundaries that seemed to be very comfortable and very well-suited 50 years ago aren't working anymore," he says. "Now the private sector has become very competent at performing a lot of things that used to be very well-suited for the public sector."

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