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'Net Insider

Forecasts for double or nothing


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 05/02/05

Scott Bradner


In the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Department, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has introduced legislation to cripple the ability of the National Weather Service to show you weather information and forecasts that you paid to have collected.


Last year I wrote about an experimental service the NWS developed to provide raw weather data via an XML interface ("Is paying twice better?"). A few months after that column ran, the NWS converted the experiment into a production service over the objections of the commercial weather service industry (see the Commercial Weather Services Association Web site). This decision was in line with recommendations in the National Research Council report "Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services ".


The logic of this decision and the general idea that the NWS provides information (including its Web site) to the public with few restrictions, was further supported by a February column by James Boyle, a Duke Law School professor, in The Financial Times ("Public information wants to be free "). Boyle wrote that the model of open access to weather data practices in the U.S. produced a 39-fold return on the cost of collecting and analyzing weather data as compared with a sevenfold return in Europe, where the same type of data is not openly shared.


The weather industry didn't accept the NWS decision that you shouldn't have to pay twice for the same data and has apparently convinced Santorum to act as its water boy. It is likely not a coincidence that AccuWeather, one of the many commercial providers of weather information, is based in Pennsylvania. One look at the confusing and advertising-filled AccuWeather Web site will tell you why it would like to shut down the clear and intuitive NWS site.


With irony in the timing, Santorum introduced Senate Bill 786, the "National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005" on the day before U.S. taxes were due - the taxes that pay for the NWS. The bill, obtainable through the Library of Congress Thomas Web site , is designed "to clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes." A press release about the bill on the senator's Web site reads: "Santorum proposes to modernize National Weather Service to better serve public." Santorum must have a strange concept of serving the public considering the bill prohibits the NWS from providing a product or service "that is or could be provided by the private sector." Such a rule would require the NWS to largely shut down its public face, including its Web site, because it offers services, such as forecasts and weather maps that AccuWeather and others provide. Under the bill, the NWS could continue to provide severe weather forecasts and warnings but not much else. Just to show the extent to which this bill throws common sense out the window, it also prohibits an NWS employee from commenting on forecasts after they are said.


I hope that Congress, at least this once, pays more attention to the needs and desires of the almost 300 million people living in the U.S. than to a handful of companies in the commercial weather industry.


Disclaimer: Students pay enough for Harvard the first time and surprisingly many pay again (as alumni), but the above muse on paying double is my own.


Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at


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