Who Owns the Weather?

The U.S. government, acting through the National Weather Service, collects detailed weather data from around the country, providing the foundation for all weather forecasts. There is fierce competition among TV stations and radio networks in terms of analysis and presentation, but everyone works off the same facts. No private entity could hope to duplicate the NWS's vast infrastructure.

Unfortunately, NWS data feeds are available only in a closed proprietary format – and therefore not readily useable by the public – and the commercial weather industry is fighting to keep it this way. At issue is a new NWS proposal that would make weather data available through the Internet using open standards, such as XML (the basic format for presenting high-level information on the Internet). This would open the weather business to greater competition and potentially lead to enhanced service at lower cost.

Feeling threatened, the existing industry (aided by Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Conrad Burns (R-MT)) has argued against disclosure, asserting that it puts the government into unfair competition against the private sector. But can the dissemination of government information really constitute competition with the private sector? The question is not a new one.

In 1993, public interest organizations won a long battle to convince the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to make its Electronic Data Gathering and Retrieval System (EDGAR) freely available. For many years, the SEC had an exclusive contract with Mead Data that allowed Mead to process all SEC filings. If you went to the SEC, you could view the data for free on microfiche. If you wanted it online, you had to pay $240-$360 an hour to view the information.

The subsequent release of EDGAR on the Internet led to the creation of thousands of new services and sparked dramatic growth in the number of small investors, who for the first time were able to easily look up market news and view SEC filings.

In 1998, a similar battle resulted in the release of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's database. The commercial providers of this information had argued against making it freely available online, while most other business groups and public interest organizations pushed for its wide-scale release.

Again, openness won out and the result was more private sector activity, not less. The new system seems to have had little negative impact on businesses that conduct patent and trademark research; it turns out that the basic information is not as important to their profitability as the quality of their analysis. At the same time, openness has brought greater accountability, as reporters and others have used the information for investigations of patent claims.

Despite these fights, there is actually quite a large area of agreement around government information. The United States is one of only a few countries in the world that does not assert copyright over the information it creates. This is a reflection of our commitment to both open government and free enterprise. No one is arguing to overturn this important feature of copyright law. The public should not have to pay twice for access to basic government information that has been created at taxpayer expense.

It is also agreed that government should provide only the basic information that it creates or collects in fulfilling its public mission. It should be up to the private sector to perform value-added analysis to fulfill private-sector needs.

Dissemination of weather data through the Internet is consistent with these principles. The Weather Service's central mission is to collect weather data and put it into a basic, useable format; accordingly, this information should be made publicly available. Doing so will expand the private sector marketplace and create new competitive pressures to find more effective ways of analyzing and disseminating meteorological data. For anyone who has been the victim of a botched forecast, this should come as a welcome development.

Ari Schwartz is an associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.