The disappearing data and the cost to society

A National weather service surface data site collects information about temperature, humidity, wind, air pressure and more. Some public entities are installing their own high-resolution weather instrument sites, called mesonets…but significantly to severely reducing public access. Photo credit: NOAA

In mid-May of 2021, AllisonHouse was informed by the National Weather Service that the West Texas Mesonet would no longer be available without a high cost to our customers. Unfortunately, we had to stop receiving the feed of this data as passing along the cost would have required us to raise subscription prices significantly.

Unfortunately, the West Texas Mesonet is not the only mesonet to do this. Several years ago, the Oklahoma Mesonet did the same thing. Although we tried, at the time, to offer a $2 a month add-on for people to acquire that data, few people did…and because we were losing money, we dropped the service.

These are two examples that are either recent, or prominent to many of our subscribers. But these aren’t the only two, by far. Last year, a grand announcement was made for the New York mesonet, which was supposed to help, in part, the National Weather Service forecasters in their accuracy of snowfall predictions.

But much of that mesonet, paid for by tax dollars, was immediately placed behind a paywall. While the general public can access the data through a tedious process, unless you pay a large amount of money, you cannot make the data convenient to use.

I’m going to argue that there is a multifold problem with this approach. First of all, data that only helps government agencies…falls way short of helping and serving the public. Secondly, we the public paid for the data…why can’t others, both public and private, optimize that data for applications and tools to improve society’s impacts to weather?

I get it. After working in the educational community for 2 decades, it goes something like this: we have the money to make a mesonet or get a radar in a grant from the National Science Foundation, and/or the local, state, or the federal government…and we aren’t given the long-term funding to maintain or distribute said data. And, in many cases, projects must have a termination time.

But we, in government and in the private sector, need to look longer-term. Why not have a 20 or 30 year grant that pays for the installation, maintenance and distribution costs? Why, at the end of the grant period, must it either be terminated, or gotten rid of altogether, or put for sale at exorbitant prices?

Solution: If you are a governmental agency (universities included), you need to pay for access and maintenance costs, long-term, AND that has to be an option in a grant, or by commitment from the hosting governmental agency. Nobody is served well by your mesonet or radar if just one agency can see it displayed in a very useful manner on their screens.

How much more could we have learned from Project Vortex and it’s sequel if it went on a 10 year run, instead of just two?
And how much would we know and be better forecasters if only more than a select few can see crucial pieces of weather data without breaking the bank?

We can and must do better…much better than this. It’s a black eye on the scientific community, and on research in this country. As other countries have embraced the model we once had of making the data available to everyone, it would be a great disappointment…and be a detriment to the public making decisions based on actual weather conditions…if we regress to locking data down and making it unavailable in real-time. The thinking, not the system, must change to long-term benefits, instead of short-term gains.

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