• United States

Is paying twice better?

Jul 05, 20043 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsProgramming Languages

The U.S. National Weather Service currently is running a neat little data service that is an almost perfect example of what I want a tax-funded government agency to provide. But not everyone is a fan of this type of thing; at least one group would have you pay twice for the same information.

A number of government agencies provide very useful data services to the public. Three examples are: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which maintains a Web site where one can read patents and patent applications; the Library of Congress, which among other things runs the Thomas Web site, where you can gain access to the full text and status of federal legislation; and the U.S. Supreme Court, which puts the text of its opinions online. There are many other examples of this “information to the people” movement that started a few years ago.

The National Weather Service has provided lots of weather-related information through its Web site for years. Its latest project is an experimental XML-based service that lets an Internet-connected end user send a query containing the latitude and longitude of some location, the start and end times of a measurement window and a list of desired information. The service then extracts the information from the database that the weather service uses to create its forecasts and returns the information requested. This can include temperature, wind, cloud cover, snowfall amount and likelihood of precipitation over the next 12 hours. The data is returned in XML and can be parsed by a simple program and displayed on the user’s computer screen. The weather service is asking for public comment on this service before Aug. 1. The organization will evaluate comments to see if it should make the service permanent.

You might wonder who would not want such a service. All of the services I mentioned supplant private-sector services that provided access to the government information for a fee. Naturally, the companies providing the fee-based access were not thrilled that you and I could bypass them to get the information directly. It’s not much of a surprise to hear that the Commercial Weather Services Association is not all that happy about the National Weather Service providing too much data to the public because the CWSA “is the trade association for the professionals who make weather their business,” the group’s Web page says.

The association is fighting recommendations that the National Weather Service put more of its data online for the public. Such recommendations were made in the National Research Council’s report, “Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services.”

The CWSA thinks this type of data should go through a commercial weather company before it gets to you, and, because the company needs to make money, it wants you to pay (again) for the data in some way.

It is doing just what it should: Looking out for its members’ welfare rather than what is best for all of us. But in this case I think the association is being shortsighted: Just because I can see the information on my screen does not mean that I won’t check out

Disclaimer: Many at Harvard pay twice, once as a student then again as an alum, so the above desire to not pay twice does not represent a university view