Whither weather?

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?”

One Response to “Whither weather?”

  1. Frederic Fabry says:

    I am not particularly surprised at this attempt, nor at the quote from AccuWeather. In fact, there is in the U.S. (and in Canada) this constant tension between the public and the private sectors in meteorology. The U.S. has this great policy of distributing raw weather data and model output for free, something that is unheard of outside of North America. This policy has spawned a vigorous private sector in meteorology, to the point that the U.S. private sector in meteorology is already 150% the size of the U.S. National Weather Service. So what the private sector seem to want now is to have the nice role of saying “warm and sunny” to the public, leaving the “bad” role of warnings to the National Weather Service (probably because if a private company got it wrong, it could be sued).

    I have limited sympathy for the “generalist” private sector in meteorology (as opposed to the outfits that do their best to add value to the forecast). First and foremost, because their forecasts are generally poorer in quality: Bachelors in meteorology will first try to get a better-paid National Weather Service job, or find a niche market to take their chance at the American Dream; the ones not up to that level will end up in the generalist private sector. Then, the private sector in meteorology gets almost all of its raw material for free. Talk about a subsidy. Of course, it wants more….

    That being said, every two years or so, we have similar debates in the Canadian scene. Because it is primarily limited to the meetings of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, you never get to hear about it. The issue is hotly debated because the delivery of weather forecasts fall in between the standard criteria used to establish what should be a public good versus what could benefit from the market forces (rivalrousness and excludability). That, plus the fact that the government is still expected to do essentially all the work to fullfill its role of protecting citizens, is at the source of the debate. Efficiency-wise, the system as it is now is probably optimum. The battle over Internet distribution is probably just a first step towards an attempt to move the government out of the distribution of forecasts by all means (Weather Radio, phone services, etc), and is probably an easier battle to win. This is not over.