The Palm Beach Post reports on a legislative effort to shut down the online offerings of the National Weather Service.
Do you want a seven-day weather forecast for your ZIP code? Or hour-by-hour predictions of the temperature, wind speed, humidity and chance of rain? Or weather data beamed to your cellphone?
That information is available for free from the National Weather Service.
But under a bill pending in the U.S. Senate, it might all disappear.
The bill, introduced last week by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., would prohibit federal meteorologists from competing with companies such as AccuWeather and The Weather Channel, which offer their own forecasts through paid services and free ad-supported Web sites.
Supporters say the bill wouldn’t hamper the weather service or the National Hurricane Center from alerting the public to hazards — in fact, it exempts forecasts meant to protect “life and property.”
The logic is simple: The government shouldn’t intrude on existing and potential offerings of the private sector because that could inhibit entrepreneurship. Consider this paragraph:
“The National Weather Service has not focused on what its core mission should be, which is protecting other people’s lives and property,” said [Barry] Myers, whose company, [ AccuWeather] is based in State College, Pa. Instead, he said, “It spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year, every day, producing forecasts of ‘warm and sunny.’”
Aside from the absurdity of this statement that weather reporting and prediction can be separate–I guess the government should just focus on delivering information on the places where hurricanes might occur–, this logic presumes that the private sector would serve the public equally, for example, offering the entire country weather data as opposed to the major metropolitan areas such as NY, Chicago and LA. It also ignores the value-added that companies could offer by repackaging the data or offering specific features, such as weather alerts keyed to travel plans. Public sector initiatives do not exclude business possibilities. The US Census Bureau allows people to download geographic data. That hasn’t stopped Google maps or Mapquest from offering the very same data with different interfaces and features.
Second, there’s no acknowledgement in the bill that, by this logic, the public would be forced to pay twice, once for the initial data collection by the government and again for the private service reporting of the data.
This was my favorite paragraph in the article:
“The weather service proved so instrumental and popular and helpful in the wake of the hurricanes. How can you make an argument that we should pull it off the Net now?” said Nelson’s spokesman, Dan McLaughlin. “What are you going to do, charge hurricane victims to go online, or give them a pop-up ad?”