NOAA Cites Data-sharing Obligations in Draft Commercial Weather Policy

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is interested in procuring weather data from commercially operated satellites and instruments provided that the data meets government standards and can be used in a way that complies with U.S. obligations to share such information with other nations.

So says a draft commercial weather data policy released Sept. 1 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 13-page draft NOAA Commercial Space Policy essentially codifies what NOAA officials have  been saying publicly for years.

Interested parties have until Oct. 1 to comment on the proposed policy, which the agency hopes to finalize before the end of the year. This would comply with pending legislation known as the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561), whose prospects for passage are uncertain.

Under the draft policy, NOAA’s National Weather Service would first determine what sorts of data would be considered for a data buy. NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, which manages the U.S. civilian weather-satellite enterprise, would then judge whether existing or proposed commercial systems can meet those requirements.

NOAA’s Office of Space Commercialization, meanwhile, would be empowered as the agency’s primary gatekeeper for commercial weather companies. Any commercial operator seeking meetings with NOAA officials will have to route its request through the office under the draft policy.

The office, a small policy shop within NOAA with a roughly $600,000 annual budget, is charged with promoting U.S. commercial space interests at home and abroad. Domestically, it has a mandate to assist commercial companies interested in doing business with the government.

Although there is some bipartisan agreement among lawmakers that aspiring commercial weather companies should get their shot at supplementing the data the National Weather Service uses to build daily forecasts, legislators who have been active on the issue are split on how to deal with NOAA’s international data-sharing obligations.

Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. Credit: NOAA
NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, led by  Stephen Volz (above) would have ultimate say on which commercial weather data meets the government’s needs. Credit: NOAA

During a July 14 hearing of the House Science environment subcommittee, NOAA Deputy Administrator Manson Brown told lawmakers there is no room to maneuver around the international data-sharing obligations. Through such arrangements, which are reciprocol, NOAA has access to far more data than its own satellites are able to collect.

U.S. Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act, expressed concern during hearing that if vendors refuse to allow NOAA share commercial data for free, the agency could be forced to pay for it many times over to fulfill its international obligations.

But another co-sponsor, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), said companies may not want to do business with the government if it turns around and freely shares their data.

NOAA insists the U.S. has an obligation to freely share global weather data it gets from satellites under the 20 year-old World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 — an obligation Brown told lawmakers is “not open to interpretation or debate.” The World Meteorological Organization is part of the United Nations.

NOAA stuck to this same hard line in its new draft policy, which says weather data are “public goods” akin to roads and the common defense. Moreover, NOAA pointed out, no one national weather agency can produce round-the-clock forecasts without sharing satellite data.

“The system of global reciprocity means NOAA receives three times the amount of data it contributes, which improves the forecasts and reduces costs,” the agency wrote in the draft policy.

Still, NOAA officials appear receptive to at least exploring Bridenstine’s concerns.

“Recognizing that some commercial space-based data providers may desire certain exceptions to the open data policy in order to advance their legitimate proprietary interests, NOAA will evaluate the use of space-based data obtained from commercial providers on a case-by-case basis,” the draft policy says.

There are several aspiring commercial weather-satellite companies in the United States, none of which have launched operational satellites. Almost all of these companies say they would be interested in selling data to NOAA to supplement expected revenue from commercial customers.