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Forecasts for double or nothing


By Scott Bradner


In the no good decision goes unpunished department, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has introduced legislation to cripple the ability of the National Weather Service to show you weather information and forecasts you paid to have collected. 


Last year I wrote about an experimental service developed by the US National Weather Service (NWS) to provide raw weather data via an XML interface.  (Is paying twice better?  A few months after that column the NWS decided to go ahead with turning 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 (NRC) report Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services (


The logic of this decision, as well as the general idea that the NWS provide information to the public with few restrictions (including its' excellent web site (, was further supported by a February 2005 column by James Boyle, a professor at the Duke Law School, in the Financial Times.  (Public information wants to be free -  In this column Boyle showed that the model of open access to weather data practices in the US produced a 39-fold return on the cost of collecting and analyzing weather data as compared with a 7-fold return in Europe where the same type of data is not openly shared.


The weather industry did not accept the NWS decision that you should not have to pay twice for the same data and has apparently convinced Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum ( to act as their water boy. It is likely not a coincidence that Accu Weather, one of the many commercial providers of weather information, is based in Pennsylvania.  One look at the muddled, confusing and advertising filled Accu Weather web site will tell you why they would like to shut down the clear and intuitive NWS web site.


With a bit of irony in the timing, Senator Santorum introduced Senate bill 786  "National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005" on the day before US taxes were due - you know - the taxes that pay for the NWS.  The bill, obtainable through the Library of Congress Thomas web site (, is designed "[t]o clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes."  Senator Santorum said in a press release the bill "proposes to modernize Nation Weather Service to better serve public."   <<< note that the original does not have a "the" >>>> (


Senator Santorum must have a very strange concept of serving the public since 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 their public face including their web site because it is offering services, like forecasts, weather maps, and radar images that Accu Weather 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 any NWS employee from commenting on forecasts after they are issued - i.e. no more TV interviews with the NWS hurricane expert.


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 US than to handful of companies in the commercial weather industry.  But there is no way to be sure that will be the outcome.


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