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The six year war for New Zealand’s weather data

The New Zealand Government has agreed to formally investigate why taxpayer funded weather data is currently being blocked for open use – and what data could be freed up in the future. It’s long overdue, writes Philip Duncan.

I set up WeatherWatch.co.nz in 2005 when I worked for the Radio Network. In 2010 I was caught up in the dramatic media changes and as a result I left radio and took ownership of WeatherWatch.co.nz, hiring one other person full time and one part time. MetService has 100+ meteorologists and NIWA has over 1$100m a year in taxpayer funding. So in the battle I’m about to describe, I’m David not Goliath.

Growing up I had huge respect for MetService and NIWA. Former MetService weather ambassador Bob McDavitt never saw me as competition, he saw me as someone who was passionate about weather.

But as my brand grew I suddenly found myself being treated like the bad guy by the Government forecaster. I was accused of stealing MetService warnings and labelling them as my own. I had NIWA’s CEO come to me and personally tell me “no one in New Zealand communicates the weather better than Philip Duncan and WeatherWatch” and signed a contract with us to display NIWA’s data – then without warning cancelled the contract to suddenly compete against me. They told the media and my clients before they told me.

This started a new, painful, ongoing challenge for me – one that has taken up more than 70% of my energy for the past five years. To simply exist I need to challenge my Government every week – it’s either fight to free up public weather data, or walk away from WeatherWatch.co.nz.

In a truly deregulated weather market, all taxpayer funded data would be made available without bias. At the moment the sales people at both NIWA and MetService control the data and choose which data will be “given back” – and they prefer blocking it from competitors or selling it for an astronomical fee.

NIWA says we can “freely” access public data, but it needs to be delayed 24 hours. Can you imagine a traffic report that was 24 hours old?

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Damage to Wellington roads after a severe storm in 2013 that left over 30,000 homes without power (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

When it comes to weather, it appears our weather agencies have adopted a philosophy where they know best and any challenge of the status quo is met by responses from lawyers. This is making up part of our complaint: surely something is wrong when we ask for tax funded data from a Government agency and get a response from their General Manager of Legal.

In 2014 WeatherWatch.co.nz emailed NIWA for a quote to use and purchase data from them, and NIWA responded not by contacting us but instead by ringing one of our clients and trying to talk them out of using WeatherWatch.co.nz.

A gross breach of privacy and ethical standards. Not to mention my small business is only 2.5 people and I’m being treated like a serious corporate threat when all I want is public data that I would be welcome to use in any other country.

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The types of emails you can expect in response to a request for tax-funded data.

So what does this all mean to the everyday New Zealander? It means you cannot easily access current and historical weather observations.

For example, the current set up means when a Cyclone Winston or Cyclone Bola comes our way, we can’t show you in real time what is happening, like they can in Australia and Canada. That breeds complacency and it also ensures many New Zealanders aren’t truly educated on how the weather works. The “she’ll be right” mentality kicks in – because if you cant see something scary then it’s probably not happening, right?

Western governments like the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK all have total open weather data – meaning every farmer, amateur pilot, grower, small weather forecaster – every person who needs the most basic weather observations can always have them and use them at no extra charge.

The New Zealand Government itself backs and supports open data so I’m a little perplexed as to why I’ve had to explain the merits of this to various Ministers, including the Prime Minister (he downloaded our app though, saying we were accurate for golfing!).

Since 2008, WeatherWatch.co.nz has been working with people on both sides of the political aisle and within the past year received boosted support from the Prime Minister, the Labour leader and United Future. Land and Information New Zealand supports us, as do others like Auckland Civil Defence.

MetService demands money if you want to use tax funded rain radars, even in severe weather – and you can’t just buy the data and use it, we are double charged or triple charged if the data is used on a website, app and video. Overseas the data is free to use as much as your imagination allows, which has lead to some amazing live weather tracking products in the USA, Canada and Australia in particular.

The biggest loser here is actually the news media and its consumers, who tend to only report on damage and forecasts. Very rarely do you see any of New Zealand’s media showing live observations and rain radar coverage. Just watch CNN if you want to see what live tracking of severe weather looks like, or Weather.com.

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Damage from a tornado in West Auckland, 2012 in which three people lost their lives (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

NIWA boasts their single super computer can accurately forecast deadly tornados, in fact they even demonstrated it. Which is amazing! But when we asked to use it in our Herald Weather Videos or at WeatherWatch, NIWA wanted huge money for it – despite the fact it could save lives and wouldn’t cost them a thing.

In Minister Joyce’s letter to me in late May he outlined the Government’s initiative “Open and Transparent Government”. “In line with these principles and after some discussion with my colleagues, I have asked officials to begin investigating…[if] weather data that could be publicly made available,” said Minister Joyce. This is a huge development.

The formal review isn’t guaranteeing change any in the future – Minister Joyce says MetService and NIWA need to be considered as collectors of the data. NIWA and MetService CEO’s have both said they’re ideologically against the private weather sector, meaning money isn’t the issue here. Like Telecom in the ’90s they are both desperately holding on to the tax provided “copper wire network” and billing the earth for anyone who wants access to it.

Personally I welcome the timely review – I’m quite burnt out from a decade of being treated like the bad guy for asking for something that is free and normal overseas. In fact, MetService demonises me for asking for public weather data while they themselves use public weather data in other countries to compete aggressively and commercially against both public and private forecasters in those nations.

I want to get back to focusing my energy on forecasting the weather and creating new weather products, and if the Government allows more open use of tax funded weather data then I bet you’ll see a dramatic increase in weather products from all forecasters and your favourite news outlets. Which would be a great outcome – because ultimately the more information we all have, the smarter and safer we’ll be as a country.

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