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NOAA Tries ‘Oddball’ Approach to Harnessing Big Data

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan // Sue Ogrocki/AP File Photo

Imagine a world where the world’s environmental data were as easy to access as sports scores.  

That’s the future envisioned by leaders at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the world’s leading producer of what they termed “environmental intelligence.”

NOAA collects terabytes of weather data per day and publicly shares a good chunk of it – more than any other agency in government. But NOAA wants to make its growing amount of data even more shareable and consumable.

In the past year, NOAA launched a big data project, partnering with cloud computing service providers in an effort to figure out low-cost ways to share environmental intelligence in new ways.

“We want to make Earth observations data and environmental intelligence as accessible at our fingertips as sports scores are today,” said NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, speaking at the Nextgov Prime conference Sept. 9. “We collect 20 terabytes of weather data per day, twice the volume of data contained within the Library of Congress. We’re really good at getting bits and bytes, but not so good at getting them out the door.”

The agency’s aim, Sullivan said, is to “spur innovation” and to explore how to create a “global economic return on investment” through advanced analytics and better delivery of environmental intelligence data.

Sullivan said the project is still in its early stages and there aren't yet clear road maps.

“We don’t really know where this is going,” Sullivan said. “It’s an oddball approach for government agencies, and an oddball approach for companies who can’t see an assured path for a return on investment. But we’ve rededicated our effort on the presumption that over time, the demand for this kind of environmental intelligence will continue to grow.”

Brian Eiler, a senior adviser to NOAA’s undersecretary, said the project “is about creating the right framework in the private and public ecosystem to foster more use cases.”

He added, “We want to share data more efficiently, effectively and on a larger scale, finding uses of data and matching them with the right technical expertise in the private sector.”

NOAA’s data is mostly public anyway, so the problem is more in getting its arms around the vast amount of raw data it produces and finding better ways to share it than in securing the data itself.

Some day – perhaps soon – citizens might look to their mobile devices for more than weather forecasts. After all, NOAA has sensors that collect information all over the world, from the bottom of the oceans to space.

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