Privatizing the Weather

Last December, as noted here, the National Weather Service joined the Internet age and began to put mountains of raw weather data on the Internet. The NWS recognized that making weather data available to everyone for free, open source style, would empower amateurs, entrepreneurs and others in government to build their own innovative forecasts and data systems. Could there be a more appropriate, efficient, or socially constructive use of government data?

Well, AccuWeather doesn’t think so. It accuses the government of undercutting its business, and has now prevailed upon Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania to introduce legislation (S. 786) that would require the National Weather Service to suppress a lot of its data and retreat to the pre-Internet era. The headline on Santorum’s press release claims his bill would “Modernize National Weather Service to Better Serve Public.” Translation: Stop the NWS from cutting into AccuWeather’s business, and let AccuWeather dominate national weather forecasting, charge top dollar for basic-level services, and feel no pressure to develop more sophisticated or cheaper weather services.

AccuWeather’s line is that the Weather Service should stick to forecasting hurricanes and tsunamis, and stop duplicating services that the private sector can provide. But that’s a ridiculous argument. As the Weather Service’s director of strategic planning and policy, Ed Johnson, told the Palm Beach Post: “If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that’s really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time. You don’t just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is.”

More to the point, who’s duplicating whom? AccuWeather relies upon the Weather Service’s free data, then charges 15,000 customers for its proprietary work-ups. For AccuWeather/Santorum to demand that the Weather Service shut off public access to its data is essentially asking that AccuWeather be given a lucrative monopoly and have the public pay for it. Should libraries be shut down because they “compete” with bookstores? Should the national parks be eliminated because they offer an alternative to Kampgrounds of America?

The Santorum bill is really about rank protectionism – for a cry-baby business and a vulnerable political ideology. AccuWeather wants a subsidized, competition-free business, and Republican ideologues want to stamp out a “bad example” of government meeting public needs more efficiently than private businesses. Making weather data (or court opinions or SEC filings) available as an open-access public good actually stimulates more business activity than awarding it to a fat-and-happy monopolist. An open-source data platform is more likely to stimulate innovation than a closed, proprietary one.

It’s unclear if the Santorum legislation will have legs, but if the precedent of privatizing the weather can be achieved, who knows what will come next? Please write your Senators.