NOAA pledges to better disseminate weather information

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency charged with tracking weather patterns along with charting U.S. waters and a myriad of other environmental duties, long has been caught between private companies who say they are doing too much and information consumers who say they are not doing enough.

Last week, NOAA announced its latest effort to keep its constituents happy: A new policy that will promote more transparent relationships with private, public, and academic groups. While the actual impact of the policy is not yet clear, it likely will lead to making weather and other information more easily available to consumers, as well as to more communication between the different sectors.

"If we can move to a better means of distribution that's less expensive, in this case the Internet, we should be taking advantage of that," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based group that promotes the use of technology and democratic values.

While NOAA does not charge fees for its services, which are paid for by taxpayers, much of its information is distributed in forms that require certain equipment to receive and interpret it. As a result, individuals who want to use the information often have to rely on commercial media to distribute it. While the new policy applies to all of NOAA's units, the potential effect on the National Weather Service has received the most attention, largely because the information it provides is so valuable to people and companies.

Driven by long-standing tension over NOAA's role and rumblings that the current policy made little sense, NOAA commissioned the National Research Council, part of the National Academies, to investigate current NOAA policy and make recommendations. In the report, released last year, NRC noted that frictions among the public, private and academic sectors come from the fact that "all members do not share the same expectations and understanding of the proper roles and responsibilities of the three sectors."

Instead of rigidly defining the roles of each, NRC recommended creating better avenues of communication among the three groups and encouraging clearer decision-making processes when deciding which group should take responsibility for which functions.

Under the old NOAA policy, implemented in 1991, NWS was not able to provide a service currently available from the private sector. "This guideline is untenable because the private sector can now do much of what the NWS legitimately does, and there may be good public policy reasons for the NWS to carry out certain activities, even if the private sector does or could do them," said the NRC report.

Comments attached to the report from private companies argued that NWS provided information or services that often overlapped with what the private sector was already providing, and in some cases took work away from the private sector.

One commenter, who was quoted anonymously, wrote about a new UV index that was developed simultaneously by his company and NOAA. "The ultimate result was that while taxpayer money was spent to recreate what had already been developed in private industry, the National Weather Service limited itself to ongoing daily preparation of its index for approximately 50 cities, valid, for noon only, at each location," he wrote.

When NOAA posted its new policy proposal last January, it received almost 1,500 comments, some from individuals who felt weather information should be made more accessible. One farmer wrote that he had to find a commercial website, which contained advertising, to get the information he needed instead of relying solely on NOAA. A pilot wrote that he wished NOAA provided more complete information so he didn't have to rely on commercial ratio stations.

"The NOAA synopsis of weather is too vague to be useful. 'Cloudy and 80 degrees' is not a substitute for 'Thunderstorms west moving northeast at 20 mph, bases at 3000 feet, 5/8 coverage, hail reported,' " he wrote.

Under the new guidelines, that commenter may soon get the information he wants. NOAA will use the Internet, including e-mails and Extendable Markup Language, or XML, to transmit more information.

"By putting information into XML, it makes it available to others. Companies still have to program around it, they're still doing value-added, but at a much cheaper price," said Schwartz. As a result, more businesses likely will provide the information, and it will easier for individuals to find and afford.

Some groups expressed concern that the new policy remained unclear. John Toohey-Morales, president of the National Council of Industrial Meteorologists, an association of private sector meteorologists, said he is worried NWS will expand its services and encroach on those currently provided by the private sector.

"Although probably well-intentioned, removing clear lines of distinction between the normal activities of the NWS and the private sector could have the negative effect of encouraging vast, unmitigated, and unregulated expansion by the NWS," he wrote in a position paper.

Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, which represents professionals in the government, private and academic sectors, said the proposal had a "high degree of fuzziness to it," but that might be just what is required.

The roles of the private, public and academic sectors are "always going to be hard to define, so you probably shouldn't precisely draw lines and boundaries," he said. Moreover, technology is constantly changing and having an impact on each sector's responsibility, he added.

Ed Johnson, director of strategic planning and policy of NWS, said the policy is more a statement of intent than an indication of specific changes under way. "It doesn't instantly mean that any one of our services will change…. It does mean we have stated our commitment to be open in what we do and to give those that are affected an opportunity to comment, and to consider those views when we make decisions," he said. "That's really what it's all about."

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