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Storm brewing over online data from National Weather Service

A bill has been introduced to limit what the NWS provides

By Todd R. Weiss
April 26, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Over the past few years, the National Weather Service (NWS) has offered more and more forecasting data, statistics and weather information on its Web sites to share with the public, farmers, businesses and others.
Now the agency finds itself in the midst of a storm of criticism that it has overstepped its bounds. Critics say the NWS is improperly competing head to head with private weather companies that sell detailed and targeted weather information to businesses, farmers and others. And a bill has been filed in Congress to stop the weather agency from offering the detailed weather data online for free.
Since 1991, the NWS had a policy stating that it wouldn't compete with private weather companies by providing the same types of specialized services they sell.
But last December, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- the parent agency of the NWS -- changed the weather service's noncompetition and nonduplication policy, removing the language that prohibited competition with the private companies. Instead, the new policy stated that the agency would "give due consideration" to private-sector weather companies as it looked at providing new services.
Earlier this month, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) introduced a bill that would repeal the December policy changes and again direct the NWS not to compete with or duplicate services offered by private weather businesses. Santorum's National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 (download PDF) would allow the NWS to continue to prepare and issue severe weather warnings and forecasts designed for the protection of life and property of the general public.
The new policy put into place in December improperly allows the NWS and NOAA to expand into areas already well served by the commercial weather industry, according to Santorum.
Christine Shott, a spokeswoman for Santorum, said he introduced the bill because of his concerns about job retention and growth in private weather forecasting companies in Pennsylvania. "There are hundreds of jobs at stake here" because of the expansion of services from the NWS, Shott said.
Ed Johnson, director of strategic planning and policy for the NWS and the author of the new policy, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts. But in an interview in the Florida-based Palm Beach Post last week, Johnson said the agency is expanding its online information only so the public can be better informed.
Barry Myers, a vice president at AccuWeather Inc., a commercial weather forecasting operation in State College, Pa., said the issue has been building for more than 10 years between the NWS and private weather companies.
"We don't want any specialtreatment," Myers said. What private weather companies want, he said, is for the NWS to continue to provide free public weather information -- as it has always done -- but to curb efforts to provide specialized data and forecasts that are the bread and butter of the private weather industry.

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