New NOAA information policy stirs debate

Edward Johnson, outside NOAA headquarters, says the agency's new policy takes its lead from an OMB mandate to make information available to the public.

Rick Steele

Agency grapples with role in disseminating forecasts, alerts

To what extent should agencies make their data available to the public, and how much should they rely on the private sector to do the job for them?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now grappling with this issue when it comes to publishing its weather forecasts and alerts.

Earlier this month, NOAA issued a policy that it hopes will clarify how it evaluates new technologies for distributing weather-related information. A draft of the policy, along with new Web technologies the agency is testing, has spurred debate within commercial media outlets and public advocacy groups.

Commercial providers of weather information worry that NOAA will duplicate industry services and compete with them at taxpayer expense. Advocacy groups fret that NOAA's material might be given exclusively to media companies, which could resell the information to the public or make it available through advertisement-supported conduits.

'The public should not have to pay twice for weather information,' said Ari Schwartz, an analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

Adding more fuel to the fire, low-cost technologies have inflamed the debate.

Although NOAA's National Weather Service is charged with making its weather information available to the public, the agency has traditionally left the bulk of the job to commercial media, such as TV networks and newspapers that get the data from NOAA satellite feeds, teletypes and other sources.

But as new technologies have become available, NOAA has dabbled in services that directly reach the public, most notably its own Web portal, weather.gov. The agency estimates that its Web sites get about 6 million visitors a day. NOAA is also testing e-mail, a wireless access protocol for mobile phones and a Web service using Extensible Markup Language.

Such forays worry commercial providers, who fear losing revenue-generating traffic to the government services, said John Toohey-Morales, president of the National Council of Industrial Meteorologists.

'Private-sector entities have invested millions in new convenient ways for the general public to consume weather information,' Toohey-Morales said. 'When the government competes with the private sector, then what incentive is there for the private sector to provide these innovations?'

Toohey-Morales said it is not any particular new technology that the association opposes but rather the lack of clear boundaries defining what new services NOAA can and cannot develop.

Edward Johnson, director of NOAA's Strategic Planning Office, acknowledged that NOAA has not explained clearly how it evaluates new technologies. To address industry concerns, the agency reworked a 1991 policy on dissemination. The agency issued a draft in June for public review and published the final version Dec. 1.

For guidance, the agency looked to OMB Circular A-130, Johnson said. The circular mandates that agencies must make their information available in commonly accepted formats and through public outlets such as the Internet. Citing Circular A-130, the policy stated that NOAA would continue to make data available to the public in open-standard formats such as XML.

While CDT has praised the resulting policy, NCIM has raised objections. The association plans to request that NOAA develop a more formal mechanism to evaluate the potential impact of new technologies it is considering. In a statement, Toohey-Morales said that 'this policy could quash the kind of creative and entrepreneurial forces that shaped the public presentation of weather information Americans know today.'

The issues that NOAA is attempting to address are not unique, Schwartz said. In the early 1990s, the Securities and Exchange Commission wanted to freely offer corporate public filings via the Electronic Data Gathering, Archival and Retrieval System. The agency met resistance from companies that packaged the same information electronically for consumers at a cost. Ultimately, EDGAR generated new materials that vendors then repackaged for sale.

Similar battles have since played out at the Patent and Trademark Office, over patent information, and the IRS, over online filing services. In both these cases, the agencies worked out agreements with industry detailing the information the government would disseminate.

'There has to be a way for new players to get into the marketplace,' Schwartz said. 'If you want to create new ways to innovate with government information, we will need to open the standards a little more.'

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