Weather apps. There are hundreds - perhaps thousands - of them, for mobile phones, tablet PCs, e-readers, and other portable electronic devices. The vast majority of these weather apps are made by private companies, using data provided by the National Weather Service and other sources. The Weather Service itself does not currently have an iPhone or an Android app, despite the explosive growth in the use of these devices, and the fact that many more people already rely on them for hazardous weather information than, say, NOAA Weather Radio.
In light of recent developments in communications technology, it seems rather strange that NOAA hasn’t developed a comprehensive weather app of its own. The agency has only recently embraced social media, and it has an increasing Facebook presence.
Since December 21, 2011, the Weather Service has prohibited its employees from developing apps for specific mobile devices.
Employees received a pre-holiday memo from Weather Service deputy director Laura K. Furgione, which reads in part:
There are thousands of weather applications available for iPhone, Android, iPad, and similar wireless devices. Many of them are provided at little or no cost. Many of them use National Weather Service (NWS) warnings and other weather products and some explicitly identify NWS as the source of their information. Given this well-established and growing market for device-specific weather applications for wireless devices, NWS is declaring a hold on use of any NWS resources, including on-duty time of NWS employees, to develop such applications. This will avoid using NWS resources to duplicate products readily available in the marketplace and give NWS time to carefully evaluate our appropriate role.
In case you don’t speak weather bureaucracy, the memo essentially states that NWS is going to stay out of the apps business for now, since so many private companies have produced many good (and oftentimes free) apps that communicate Weather Service products.
Why is this such a big deal, though? Well, it has been met with resistance from the agency’s rank and file, who see it as a move to privatize a core function of the federal agency - the delivery of timely weather warning information via a new generation of communication technology.
“It’s pretty clear to me that the world wide web is old technology and in the next 10 years... it’s all going to be on apps. If you want to be able to communicate to people, that’s the future,” says Dan Sobien, the director of the National Weather Service Employees Union. “The Weather Service has to be on the cutting edge of that in order to succeed in our mission.”
Sobien sent a letter to NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco warning that the employees union views the new policy as an attempt to privatize the dissemination of NWS products and services, which the union has been fighting for years, mainly under Republican administrations. The most far-reaching attempt at privatization was contained in a 2005 bill sponsored by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum when he was a Pennsylvania senator.
“This all hands memo from Furgione has done more to demoralize the NWS workforce than anything since the Bush Administration proposed to close Weather Forecast Offices,” the letter states. “All our members want to do is save lives, enhance our nation’s economy and do what we can to protect the environment. Tying our members’ hands from doing so is counterproductive for them, the NWS and NOAA.”
The Employees Union’s argument is that since taxpayers pay for the information the Weather Service gathers and the forecasts and warnings it generates, they should not be forced to pay to download an app from a private company in order to receive this information on their wireless device.
On the other hand, NOAA can’t be seen as overly competing with the private sector, since that would go against its longstanding policy support a vibrant private sector community that specializes in customized weather info, including companies such as the Weather Channel, whose free iPhone app is the most popular free weather app, according to iTunes.
“It’s important to maintain the complementary services provided by the commercial weather sector and to ensure the most appropriate and effective use of our internal resources,” said Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro via email. He noted, the apps hold “applies only to apps developed with specific devices in mind and not apps that can be applied universally.”
Sobien said he’s hopeful that a policy will be crafted that will allow the Weather Service to expand its presence in new media without crowding out private companies.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I believe the administration [of NOAA] has stepped in to fix this problem to make the Weather Service more transparent and to give the people the information that they own in the most convenient means possible for them, but until I see a signed document my optimism is cautious.”