Advanced Weather System

nferris@govexec.com

When severe weather threatened, forecasters in the National Weather Service's Pittsburgh forecasting office used to dart from one computer to another, checking on developments.

At a PC in one corner, they'd look at radar. In another corner, they'd see information collected by satellite. Still other computers displayed lightning data, groundwater readings and wind speeds and directions, often in the form of rows of numbers. "We had bits and pieces of data all over the place," says Rich Cain, the warning coordination meteorologist in Pittsburgh.

Now, with the new Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), forecasters can sit down at one powerful workstation and look at the data in as many as 12 windows. More of the information is displayed graphically, and the forecasters can overlay it on a single map to get a unified picture of what's happening. Data in the new central nervous system for forecasting is updated more often than in the past.

"It's fantastic to be able to get this on one workstation," Cain says. "We can do a lot more things with AWIPS."

The "science and art of forecasting," Cain says, depends on assimilating a great deal of disparate information and detecting patterns and fluctuations promptly. AWIPS makes the information more accessible and easier to manipulate, he says.

Saving Lives

The service is improving the quality and accuracy of weather forecasts while extending their timeliness. Not long ago, forecasts were limited to three days. This year, the service plans to begin issuing seven-day forecasts.

Such improvements are largely made possible by AWIPS and the rest of the National Weather Service's $4.5 billion modernization program. The other components include supercomputers (the Weather Service recently installed a new one from IBM Corp.), sophisticated data modeling techniques, and more high-tech data collection systems such as Doppler radar, satellites and unmanned sensors that report streamwater levels.

In July 1999, Robert Mallett, deputy secretary of the Commerce Department, in which the Weather Service is located, called the installation of AWIPS "a milestone in the revolution of weather services for our country." The system has won recognition in the prestigious Computerworld Smithsonian Awards Program, Government Executive's Government Technology Leadership Awards and elsewhere.

But AWIPS wasn't always a project everyone praised. In fact, for years it was one of those notoriously troublesome, very ambitious federal system development programs that seem to operate with black clouds hanging over them.

Stormy History

The AWIPS project dates back to the mid-1980s, when service officials recognized the need to replace the obsolete and expensive-to-operate Automation of Field Operations and Services (AFOS) system. At that time, they expected the replacement to cost $350 million.

But AWIPS got off to a shaky start and fell behind schedule, which added to its cost. By 1992, the weather service was looking at a $467 million price tag and competition in 1998. After a four-year competition for the development contract, it was awarded to PRC Inc., a Beltway technical services company.

Little progress was made in 1993 and 1994 "because of an impasse with the development contractor over the AWIPS design and shortcomings in NWS' program management," Jack L. Brock, a senior official in the General Accounting Office's Accounting and Information Management Division, told a House Science subcommittee in 1996. By then, the cost had ballooned to $525 million. The General Services Administration, which then oversaw IT acquisitions governmentwide, and the Commerce inspector general were among the others who said the program was on a path to failure.

It didn't help that a newly elected Republican Congress, the first in decades, was itching to cut back the size of government-and was targeting the Commerce Department in particular. For fiscal 1994, the $43 million AWIPS annual budget narrowly escaped a $15 million cut.

Second Opinions

At the urging of critics, the weather service obtained an assessment from an independent review team under the aegis of the National Research Council. The NRC's National Weather Service Modernization Committee provided a stream of reports and advice from 1990 to 1999. Consultants from Booz-Allen & Hamilton also were called in.

Acting on the advisers' recommendations, the Weather Service restructured the program in 1994. It took over development of the meteorological software, leaving PRC to develop the communications network, supply the hardware and system software, and make all the pieces work together.

This was no small task, says Paul Nipko, the Weather Service's AWIPS program manager. Software was being written by three organizations-PRC, the Weather Service and a lab operated by the service's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in Boulder, Colo.-plus subcontractors.

"Each of these came with their own perspective about how to do software development," Nipko says diplomatically. A 1997 GAO report was less charitable, saying the NOAA lab "did not have the software quality assurance and configuration management processes sufficient to ensure production of stable, reliable software code."

What's more, program management and acquisition management were the responsibility of two separate Weather Service offices that didn't always see eye to eye. The divided setup meant no one was completely in charge, a situation that has since been rectified.

Crisis Time

Criticism mounted to such a degree that in 1997 The Washington Post editorialized that AWIPS was one of the government's "signal failures." That year, the program faced its biggest crisis when budget cuts threatened to cripple forecasting operations and delay AWIPS still further. Up to 200 layoffs seemed unavoidable.

One way the Weather Service was paying for AWIPS was by shutting down more than half of its 300 field offices. But in mid-1997, agency officials said they didn't have the money to pay for that year's shutdowns. Accounts of the crisis differ, but it's clear that Weather Service and NOAA officials distrusted each other and weren't communicating well.

In the end, Commerce and Congress came up with the money to keep the Weather Service and AWIPS afloat, but Weather Service chief Elbert W. "Joe" Friday lost his job. The popular director, a Senior Executive Service veteran who was Federal Executive of the Year in 1993, was reassigned to a NOAA research office.

As for AWIPS, Commerce and Congress struck a deal. The program could continue only if it adhered to a strict schedule and a spending cap of $550 million. That left little wiggle room in a troubled program that had two years yet to run.

Endgame

Yet the Weather Service pulled it off-sort of. Nipko explains that another restructuring was the key. Installation of the new systems in the field offices was accelerated. Once the system was installed, its operation and maintenance costs were no longer charged to the AWIPS program.

PRC now had to build 135 local computer systems and install them within 21 months, seven months less than originally allotted, with no increase in budget. "PRC said we can do it and took on the challenge," says Jack Hayes, the company's AWIPS program manager.

Each local office has a half-dozen scientific workstations networked with several servers and a dish antenna for satellite data. They are linked by a high-speed national data network. Faced with the deadline of July 1999, PRC concentrated on the logistical issues of getting several hundred Hewlett-Packard workstations built and delivered to the sites, along with all the related gear, including items such as equipment racks and training manuals.

Although all the systems were installed on time, the service has yet to turn off its vintage 1970s forecasting system, AFOS. It will spend almost $1.4 million to operate AFOS this year. Decommissioning AFOS is complex because each site tends to have its own unique subsystems and software.

In mid-February, the agency had decommissioned fewer than two dozen of the 139 AFOS sites. It's in a horse race to get the rest shut down by September, because there is no money in the budget to operate AFOS in fiscal 2001.

More AWIPS functionality is expected with software upgrades, and the service is upgrading some of its other systems.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. John J. Kelly Jr., who succeeded Friday as Weather Service director, has let it be known that the agency should not undertake such a massive modernization program again. He says continuous technology upgrades-a strategy facilitated by AWIPS' modern architecture-are a better way to go.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec