Op-ed | NOAA’s Commercial Data Policy

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On March 15, Arian Christopher Lakey of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, was killed by an EF2 tornado while saving his father from the storm. Dozens more were injured. These are my constituents, and this type of tragedy is not unusual in Oklahoma.

Technology is rapidly developing to improve tornado warning times sufficiently to enable zero deaths from tornadoes. As chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee, with the responsibility to conduct oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I am committed to doing everything possible to develop and deploy such technology to save the lives of my constituents. They deserve it and America should expect it.

I am convinced that private-sector weather data can augment current government weather data, assimilate into our numerical weather models and substantially improve our ability to predict severe weather [“Winds of Change for Weather Data,” Commentary, Oct. 20, and “Private Sector Can Boost U.S. Weather Forecasting,” Letters, Dec. 8]. I am also convinced that a competitive, commercial market for weather data will drive innovation, reduce costs and increase the quantity and quality of data.

In February, I held a hearing with experts from NOAA, NASA and the Government Accountability Office to examine the issues plaguing NOAA’s large satellite programs, such as cost overruns and delays. It was clear to me from this hearing that a gap in satellite data availability is possible, that NOAA is taking the proper steps to mitigate a potential gap, and that Congress must do what is necessary to keep these current programs on budget and on schedule. It also underscored my belief that we need to augment our space-based observing systems by incorporating alternative modes of data collection.

Considering this need, our hearing explored NOAA’s willingness to utilize commercial data. We learned that NOAA does in fact purchase weather data from commercial entities, including lightning data, aircraft observations and synthetic aperture imagery for ice detection. So, if NOAA purchases these types of data, why not space-based weather data as well?

I was encouraged by the forward-looking view of Stephen Volz, the head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). He indicated that NOAA would be open to buying data from companies prepared to sell space-based weather data such as radio occultation and hyperspectral soundings. It was through our dialogue before and during this hearing that we developed a concept for a pilot project to competitively select at least one provider of space-based data to test it against NOAA’s proprietary data. With this pilot project, NOAA will be able to determine if the purchased data can be viably used in our numerical weather models.

This pilot program was included in H.R. 1561, the Lucas-Bridenstine Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously on May 19. I have already begun a dialogue with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and other Senate counterparts on how we can advance this legislation to the president’s desk. I am grateful to Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the environment subcommittee’s ranking member, for her bipartisan efforts. This important first step will send a clear signal to the private sector: NOAA is interested in commercial data.

Unfortunately, there is an issue that could prevent the commercial space-based weather industry from following the growth path of other industries such as commercial space-based telecommunications and imaging: how NOAA interprets World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO-40) and shares the data it receives.

NOAA’s current interpretation seems to be that satellite data must be made available free of charge to all. After all, it is necessary for safety and should be a global public good.

While I agree with this sentiment, this policy could have negative effects on the very people NOAA is trying to help. It could prevent markets from forming, thwart innovation, reduce the quantity of data available, perpetuate the existing government monopoly and cause costs to balloon. In short, this policy could work against our ability to predict timely and accurate weather events. If our policy requires a product to be given away free of charge, only the government will produce the product.

In a May hearing of the environment subcommittee, we learned that there are a few situations where NOAA applies a slightly different policy with success. NOAA contracts with some private entities and the nature of those contracts prohibits NOAA from giving the data away for free. For instance, Vaisala Inc. has an agreement dating back roughly 20 years with NOAA to provide ground-based lightning data. According to Vaisala’s president, Scott Sternberg, “[T]he arrangement is such that it protects the economic value of the data in certain commercial profit-generating sectors in the marketplace.” Here, NOAA recognizes that commercial entities play a role and that in order to ensure those entities exist there must be a market that protects data.

At the same hearing in May, one witness suggested there may be an elegant solution that allows the market to develop while making data available to the public. Scott Pace of George Washington University testified that NOAA could “make data that’s very near real-time as commercial only, then after it ages out a little bit make that available to the broader scientific community.” He used a remote sensing example. Ocean color, he said, is valuable to fishermen in the first few days but after that has no commercial value.

Further, we learned at the hearing in May that not everybody around the world follows an open data policy. According to Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, “There are different groups that actually charge around the world for weather products they put out. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, for instance, does not make their model outputs available. That must be purchased.”

That can only lead to the conclusion that our international obligations are much more nuanced than current interpretation. The current NOAA interpretation has been detrimental to companies that could be launching satellites to feed our weather models, provide resiliency in our architecture, serve as potential gap fillers and augment our forecasting capabilities. It seems there is room for NOAA’s data policy to be set on a case-by-case basis rather than through a blanket policy.

Weather data policy is critical to ensure that lives are saved and property is protected. For the sake of my constituents and our nation, we should consider new approaches.

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee.