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Is paying twice better?
By Scott Bradner
The U.S. National Weather Service is currently running a neat little data service that is an almost perfect example of the kind of thing that I want a tax-funded government agency to provide. But not everyone is a fan of this type of thing. There is at least one group that would have you pay twice for the same information.
A number of government agencies provide very useful data services to the public. Three examples are the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which maintains a web site that one can read patents and patent applications (http://www.uspto.gov/patft/index.html), the Library of Congress, which among other things runs the "Thomas" web site which provides access to the full text and status of federal legislation (http://thomas.loc.gov/), and the U.S. Supreme Court which puts the text of its opinions on-line (http://www.supremecourtus.gov/). There are many other examples of this information-to-the people movement stared a few years ago.
The National Weather Service has been providing lots of weather related information through its web site for years. (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/) Their latest project is an experimental XML-based service that lets an Internet-connected user send a query containing the latitude and longitude of some location, the start and end times of a measurement window along with a list of desired information. The service then extracts the information from the database that the weather service uses to create its forecasts and returns the information requested which can include temperature, wind, cloud cover, snowfall amount and the likelihood of precipitation over the next 12 hours. The data is returned in XML and can be parsed by a simple program and displayed on the user's computer screen. (See http://weather.gov/xml/.) The weather service is asking for public comment on this service before August 1. They will evaluate the comments to see if they should make the service permanent.
You might wonder who would not want such a service to be made permanent. All of the services I mentioned above supplanted private sector services that provided access to the government information for a fee, the companies that provided the fee-based access were not thrilled that you and I could bypass them to get the information directly. It's not much of a surprise to hear that the Commercial Weather Services Association (http://www.weatherindustry.org/ is not all that happy about the Weather Service providing too much data to the public since the CWSA "is the trade association for the professionals who make weather their business" according to their web page.
The CWSA is fighting quite hard against recommendations that the Weather Service put more of its data on-line for the public, just like the experimental service does, which were made in the Nation Research Council's report "Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services" (http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10610.html). They think that this type of data should go through a commercial weather company before it gets to you, and, since the company needs to make money, they want you to pay (again) for the data in some way.
The CWSA is doing just what it should, look out for the welfare of its members rather than what is best for all of us. But in this case I think they are being short sighted, just because I can see the information on my screen does not mean that I will not check out weather.com.
disclaimer: Many at Harvard pay twice, once as a student then again as an alum, so the above desire to not pay twice does not represent a University view.