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Who benefits from the privatization of weather data?

Nearly 150 years after its founding, the National Weather Service now uses supercomputers to predict forecasts. But the privatization of data interchange and app-driven technology is raising concerns about how weather data is being exchanged and who may benefit from that information. Andrew Blum, author of "The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast," joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The National Weather Service was founded almost 150 years ago providing weather forecasts warnings and climate data across the US and sharing that information with other weather services around the globe. There are now supercomputers powering the forecasts that help us prepare for the increasingly extreme weather around the world. But the system itself is also evolving. Private players are creating their own data sets and it's raising concerns about how that information will be shared and ultimately if some will benefit more than others. I recently spoke with Andrew Blum author of The Weather Machine A Journey Inside the Forecast.

  • Andrew Blum:

    That's been the culture for 150 years. You know going back to the originals for telegraph observations, you know, National Weather Services would collect their you know their wind speed their temperature all that they'd send it you know very organized system and then they'd all share it back with each other. And as that became automated it became even more, more global. Today it's coordinated even to the extent that the European satellites fly over parts of the earth in the morning and the American satellites follow in the afternoon. It's all very carefully calibrated.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So when I open my app right now I am and I look at the weather I am profiting from this massive collective around the world that's decided to cooperate.

  • Andrew Blum:

    It's really it's incredible global public good. Meteorologists are very proud of that. Mostly government employees know they're sort of working quietly with the World Meteorological Organization which is quite literally the U.N. of weather and they really are kind of built this astonishing system very deliberately not you know not emergent like the internet but really a kind of design system that has been incredibly successful.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is that going to change?

  • Andrew Blum:

    Well the risk is, well a few things. I mean one is that the stakes are higher you know their weather is more extreme. There's more money at risk. And while it used to be that only governments would you know would spend 20 or 30 million dollars on the supercomputer you would need to forecast the weather. That bet is starting to seem a bit more reasonable for private companies. You add into that the private satellites which are getting cheaper in other kinds of observations new new sort of new weather cell phones or between cell phone towers or all these new ways of collecting atmospheric observations. And the equation begins to change the more money the lower merit the lower cost to get into it. And you know we're kind of at the brink of a paradigm shift of private weather.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So private weather means what that when I open that app or when I open the website that my weather data would be less accurate?

  • Andrew Blum:

    Well so we've had this you know we've had these for 20 30 years we've had companies like Accuweather or the Weather Channel that have taken government data and sort of added to it you know made it you know sort of either made it pretty or it made it more precise for our location or things like that. The difference that we're seeing now is both private weather models which are the sort of what we've had before only been the realm of governments and things like private observations. So the challenge is you know so how does that feel for us at the moment it might the soonest thing might mean that you know your weather channel app is more accurate you know that that would be good.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But I'd be paying for that?

  • Andrew Blum:

    Well you pay for it now in the ad that they you or the subscription costs or things like that. The risk is if it begins to bifurcate the global system if it begins not just to add value to the existing public system but to to begin to sort of erode the foundations of global data exchange of global weather data that have really built the system we have today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because the private companies have no incentive they to contribute all of their information to the global pool they are going to contribute their information to their own clients.

  • Andrew Blum:

    Yeah I mean at the moment one of the discussions happening at NOAA and the National Weather Service the United States is you know we could buy satellite data as a subscription from a private company but according to the Rules the World Meteorological Organization we have to then share that data. We have to put it in the global pool. So the question is what happens when a private company says no you can't share it you can you can buy it and use it yourself but you can't share it because we want to sell it to every other country. And the reality is not that many other countries would buy it and you would immediately have a sort of fragmentation of this sort of this Global Exchange.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you would have every country or companies inside every country deciding to do this and then you would we wouldn't have that kind of global collective anymore.

  • Andrew Blum:

    And but of course you know they'd only be you know eight 10, 12 countries that would actually be paying for this data and it would then you know rather than this sort of system that's 150 years old. You know of you know National Weather is happily giving their data to get a lot of data back and you're beating it for the global good. You would have a situation where you know you there's a sort of breakdown of that that that that publicness.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's what's our particular government's stance on it now? What's the Trump administration think about this?

  • Andrew Blum:

    When I interviewed Neil Jacobs who's the acting administrator of NOAA for this piece for Time magazine this week. And he said he's surprised me in that he said he wants to make sure as the system evolves that companies can continue to make profit and at the end of a sentence I expected to be to make sure that we can continue to protect life and property. But clearly there are lots of sides including the appointment of. Berry Myers the former CEO of Accuweather to be the next administrator of NOAA. Lots of signs that the Trump administration is very eager to encourage this private business and is less concerned of course with the sort of multilateralism that is required for the global good of the state exchange. The last hundred fifty years.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You also take a look at some of the startups that are trying to change how we learn about what the weather is in a specific place and add that information to a larger model. What are they doing today that they weren't doing 20 years ago?

  • Andrew Blum:

    So one example is you know one thing that the that IBM announced a new a new weather model and it's very similar to the high resolution model that exists in the United States. The National Weather Service runs but they can use their their cloud computing and they can say we can run that same sort of you know detailed thunderstorm model wherever you would like us to know in Africa and South America and and that that ability is is great. I mean that's that offers up the potential for major safety

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    To prepare for a storm in those places to save lives.

  • Andrew Blum:

    And it's something that that you know we have those high resolution models in the US and Europe. So it really does get extended that capability around the world. The question though is whether it becomes more competitive when it's not as much about public safety and is more about warnings in advance for as a commodity as a preferred price.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So basically that would be something that private corporations would be very interested in knowing to figure out how to adjust either their shipping lanes or their patterns of production?

  • Andrew Blum:

    Or more more coats on the shelves at Walmart or whatever like that whatever it might be.

    And you know lots of there are lots of valid valid uses of that data but again the concern is this sort of 150 year tradition of Meteorology is a global public good being replaced as so many things are with a sort of two tiered system for that you know for for for one you can pay for it one that you get otherwise and we're sort of in uncharted territory when you begin to not just think about private companies supplying satellites to governments but really sort of being more particular about how their data is being shared.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Andrew Blum The book is called The Weather Machine. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Andrew Blum:

    Thank you.

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