Can NOAA pay industry to fill its weather data gap?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must balance its treaty obligations to provide weather data freely to the world against the private-sector innovation that weather data property rights could unleash.

Shutterstock image: businessman weathering a data storm.

Money makes the world go round, while weather forecasts help keep the world safe.

So should weather data be the property of those who collect it, thereby incentivizing industry to collect more and better data in innovative ways? Or is it a public good, collected and distributed freely by governments?

At a July 14 hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee's Environment Subcommittee, Manson Brown, deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, discussed the promise of private-sector involvement and the treaty obligations that hold weather data to be a public good, distributed free of charge.

NOAA is far from self-sufficient when it comes to the data streams that make weather forecasts possible. The agency could face a gap in satellite data coverage from October 2016 through September 2017 -- a gap that Congress hopes the private sector can help fill.

Standards coming

Brown said NOAA plans to issue a commercial satellite data policy and standards later this year, though he could not specify when.

"I am driving toward this year, very aggressively," Brown said of the forthcoming policy, which "will really signal to the industry [NOAA's] interest" in harnessing private-sector satellite capabilities for data collection.

He also promised that the "living" policy would be amended based on industry feedback.

Brown pointed to the 2015 NOAA Satellite Conference, at which hundreds of private-sector leaders engaged with NOAA on data standards, as hard evidence of the agency's interest in commercial data. He also embraced the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, which passed the House in May and would require NOAA to implement a data collection pilot program with a private-sector partner by October 2016.

But he did not have a firm answer on the profitability of such a venture.

Who gets paid what?

Brown used the phrase "learn forward" several times to describe the process of working out public/private weather data-collection partnerships.

"Let's see if we can get the technology and the feeds and the architecture right" first, he said, adding that the business arrangements would be a separate discussion.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) lamented the fragile state of America's satellite infrastructure and touted the benefits of private-sector involvement. "This data policy is critically important for creating the markets that actually drive innovation," he said.

He made the comparison to his late-night cravings for cheeseburgers, which the private sector satisfies.

"If food was to be declared a global, public good and therefore necessary to be given away for free, that cheeseburger would not have been available to me," Bridenstine said. "That cheeseburger was available because…the shareholders of [McDonald's] were interested in making a profit."

The analogy addressed the central question in Brown's testimony: "What is environmental data? Is it intellectual property, or is it a public good?"

"We think it's a public good," Brown said, though he added that there could be a hybrid model in which data is treated as a public good while companies preserve some property rights.

Could NOAA buy private-sector data and then distribute it freely?

"The problem with that, as I understand on the industry side, [is] there's no business model that supports that," Brown said. "That's sort of where we get stuck."

Worldwide sharing benefits NOAA

NOAA does not share its weather data with other nations solely for altruistic reasons. "For every byte we put in, we get three bytes back," Brown said.

Under the World Meteorological Organization's Resolution 40, the U.S is obligated to freely share "essential" weather data with the rest of the organization. The other 184 WMO countries also share their data, netting the U.S. that three-to-one return.

"We share United States data freely and openly so that we can receive data freely and openly from our international partners," Brown said, noting that NOAA provides only three of the eight primary global forecasting satellites.

Such unrestricted data access is "the foundation of the current billion-dollar weather industry," said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.). "The current government-owned, commercially operated structure has served us well."

And yet NOAA still spends some $20 million annually to buy weather data that falls outside WMO's "essential" classification, Brown said.

Lightning data, which helps scientists learn more about severe weather events, and ocean color data, which helps with the tracking of algal blooms, are two types of valuable but arguably non-essential data that NOAA buys, and it does so on a proprietary basis, Brown said.

NOAA can dodge WMO sharing requirements because the data informs local and regional, not global, forecasting, he added.

Bridenstine voiced concerns about the first Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series, which might be delayed from its planned March 2016 launch date. In addition, the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 is slated for a March 2017 launch but has been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

Decrying the unprecedented weather data gap those delays could produce, Bridenstine once again championed the role of industry.

"NOAA does in fact already purchase weather data from commercial entities. Why not space-based weather data as well?" he asked, adding that "a competitive, commercial market for weather data could drive innovation, reduce costs and increase the quantity and quality of data."

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