Open Source Weather

The control of government data is never going to be a hot political issue. It’s too complex and technical. So let me put it another way: Should private companies be able to own the weather? The good news – the surprising news – is that the National Weather Service (NWS) last week took a big step toward making weather data an open, public resource.

The NWS, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), collects vast amounts of weather data from hundreds of locations around the country. We the taxpayers pay for this infrastructure and data. But for years, private weather forecasters like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel have freely taken the NWS data, tweaked it with their own proprietary improvements, and then sold the results to websites, broadcasters, and industries that require specialized weather data (airlines, insurance companies, agriculture, shipping, etc.) This market earns revenues of more than $1 billion a year.

The big news is that the NOAA last week started providing weather data in an open-access XML format. (XML is the basic software format for presenting sophisticated information on the Internet.) This means that techies, researchers, entrepreneurs and anyone else now has free access to weather information in a readily usable form. Want to know more about wind speed, dew points, wave heights and maximum temperatures. You can. Want to build you own custom forecast? The data is now available. The NOAA move opens the doors for greater experimentation, innovation and competition in the use of raw weather data. (Daniel Terdiman has a nice account of this story in Wired.com.)

The private weather forecasting industry was not happy with the “open sourcing” of weather data. As Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in a July essay, the private weather forecasters recruited Senators Santorum and Burns to fight the release of NWS data in an open format. They said it is unfair for the government to compete with the private sector. But what’s unfair about taxpayers getting a return on their investment? As Schwartz put it, “The public should not have to pay twice for access to basic government information that has been created at taxpayer expense.”

Here’s the real lesson: treating government information as a commons stimulates greater private sector activity. That’s what happened in 1993 when the SEC released corporate filings for free (instead of letting Mead Data have an exclusive right to sell it), and when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made its database freely available online in 1998. Information vendors suddenly had to provide more “value added” than simply re-selling government data with modest improvements. They had to innovate and compete! Most vendors survived by shifting their work toward greater value-added business models.

The public got a fair return on its investment, markets became more competitive, and public accountability improved. People no longer had to navigate a balkanized regime of expensive, proprietary information (guess who wins at that game?). Government information was “democratized.” Journalists, academics, policymakers and citizens could all draw upon a shared, reliable body of information.

National Weather Service, the commoners salute you!

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