NOAA weather data
NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Frances off the coast of Florida. Credit: NOAA

Accurate, up-to-date weather information is something we take for granted in the United States. When traveling abroad, one can’t help but observe that U.S. weather information is of higher quality and ubiquity relative to other countries. So why is that?

The relative size of the U.S. in terms of population, gross domestic product and land mass with its associated wide variety of different types of weather hazards certainly is part of the answer. We have also benefited from federal investments in basic research. But in my opinion, it is the combination of a strong federal infrastructure with the National Weather Service at the forefront working in concert with a vibrant private sector. This public-private partnership is underpinned by the U.S. government’s policy of making its data available to anyone.

This U.S. model of open data access not only benefits us at home but also has allowed us to export weather services. While it’s not possible to measure the size of the private weather sector in the U.S. compared with other countries, it is possible to infer it. The Weather Co.’s major competitors overseas are primarily either other U.S. companies or quasi-government organizations such as the U.K. Meteorological Office. As a nation, we have built the largest weather enterprise on the planet — and it didn’t occur by accident. It was the result of a government policy based on public-private partnership, where the private enterprise built on the infrastructure of the public enterprise.

New and innovative observing capabilities are emerging today that challenge the traditional model of government ownership of observing systems and the associated data rights. These include observations from a single location, such as pressure data from personal cellphones that may help us better understand when storms are moving in, as well as space-based technologies, such as those deriving temperature and moisture information to improve forecasts for six hours and beyond from GPS satellites.

This commercial entrepreneurship in observation technologies is good news, but it brings challenges. As a key owner and steward of environmental observing data, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must be positioned to assess the adequacy of these commercial offerings in meeting its responsibilities, including its chief mission of warning people about hazardous weather. As a steward of taxpayer resources, NOAA should conduct a make vs. buy analysis of such observation data to determine the best value to the nation. For any data set, NOAA should always consider how to preserve and drive innovation around the raw data.

NOAA also needs to consider the implications of its actions to the intergovernmental data sharing policy, known as World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Resolution 40. While all nations don’t adhere to WMO Resolution 40, most of the nations with robust weather data do, and they share their data among one another and, in some cases, freely to nongovernment entities such as the Weather Co. NOAA reports that it receives three times more data than it provides to the international pool of weather data. The Weather Co.’s very competitive global position is due in part to this international policy. Working with foreign governments, our forecasts and distribution of government-issued warnings help keep people safe and let businesses make smarter decisions. The United States should continue to be a staunch proponent of this policy that improves forecasts and benefits U.S. citizens and businesses.

While the private weather industry relies on access to observational data from NOAA and other countries, it also heavily relies on NOAA’s forecast models. The Weather Co.’s precise forecasts use NOAA’s model data as part of their foundation. For commercial data buys, if the costs of an open data sharing license are cost prohibitive, NOAA should still include those data in its forecast models when it materially improves the model results. NOAA should continue to prioritize sharing data openly, as it is funded by taxpayers. An open data policy keeps the U.S. in a leadership position, with continued support and benefit from WMO Resolution 40. This open data approach is essential to our shared public-private mission to protect the life and property of U.S. and global citizens and businesses alike.

David Kenny is chairman and chief executive of the Weather Co., whose brands include the Weather Channel, Weather Underground and Weather Services International.