Ready to weather every storm
- By Dibya Sarkar
- Sep 24, 2004
National Weather Service
Paul Chan's first few weeks as the National Weather Service's new chief information officer were rather calm. "Nobody knew I was here, so I was quite relaxed," he said, laughing in his office on the 17th floor of his agency's building in Silver Spring, Md. "Nobody came to bother me. I said, 'Hey, this is going to be a good job.'"
That was before powerful Hurricane Charley hit Florida in early August. "I thought, 'Well, [is] my old job still open?'" he said
But NWS was exactly where he wanted to be. The 55-year-old has extensive expertise in meteorology, including a doctoral dissertation from the University of Missouri on using sea surface temperature and other parameters and statistics to predict weather.
And while working at NASA in the 1990s, he conducted several years of climate research on El Niño. The phenomenon is caused by the warming of coastal waters to the west of South America, which sets off a chain reaction in global weather patterns that often hit California hard, fanning fires that have taken many lives and cause millions of dollars in damage.
Chan, who previously worked as CIO at the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service, also has extensive education and experience in business management and development and information technology.
But when he saw the NWS CIO position advertised, he couldn't resist it, because meteorology is his first love.
NWS, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the nation's primary source for weather data, forecasts and warnings. Officials there use advanced systems to predict and track critical weather events, such as hurricanes.
With an annual operating budget of roughly $700 million, NWS has 169 offices scattered nationwide, including 122 weather forecast offices, 13 river forecast centers, nine national centers and other support offices. And this year in particular, the public is relying on the service as hurricane after hurricane grows in the Caribbean and hits U.S. coastlines.
Workers in the CIO's office have an important role in detecting and helping affected areas deal with hurricanes and
other adverse weather conditions. They provide telecommunications and IT coordination and planning, including monitoring and support for NWS infrastructure and systems nationwide, which is particularly critical for internal and public communication and information dissemination.
Chan said he's taking an enterprise IT approach and focusing on five distinct
areas: Web dissemination, telecommunications services, IT security, asset management and IT procurement. Although an enterprise architecture is an important overarching aspect, he said, he's taking an "incremental approach to make sure that we have some early wins and use the early wins to reinforce what we do."
For example, a few days before Hurricane Charley hit the Southwest coast of Florida, his team found there wasn't enough bandwidth to display satellite radar images on NWS' Web sites. They helped coordinate shifting data from Web servers in the Southern Region Headquarters, one of six regional headquarters, to those in the Eastern Region Headquarters, so the public and others could access the sites. Additionally, NWS had contracted with Akamai Technologies Inc. to provide a server platform to keep information flowing.
The action proved successful. Statistically, Chan said the site had a total of
341 million hits — defined as a download of an image or a text page — to NWS Web sites during a four-day period when Hurricane Charley made landfall.
So far, NOAA's Web site has received a record number of hits during this hurricane season. In the first eight days of September, the site received 200 million hits — equivalent to one-third of the total traffic for all of 2003, when the United States was hit by one hurricane, Isabel.
Hurricane Isabel garnered 255 million hits on NOAA's site during a similar time frame, and the system was "taxed to the max," Chan said.
But NWS officials intend to improve on their Web capacity by winter. They purchased equipment to automate load balancing instead of doing it manually. "Basically, when the system senses there's a heavy load in one region, it will shift some of the Web pages to another region," Chan said.
Another initiative is strengthening the agency's telecom services.
"Right now, the weather service has many point-to-point networks so there are potential single points of failure," Chan said. "Within a couple of months, we'll move into a [Multiprotocol Label Switching] network." The move will help simplify and improve IP-packet exchange and provide flexibility in diverting and routing traffic around single points of failure, congestion and bottlenecks, he said.
Chan also wants to inventory NWS systems across the board to help with security efforts. "If we have a computer, I'd like to know what version of operating system, what is the most recent patch that the system has, because it affects us on how we do IT security," he said. "Without that information, without the asset information, it's very hard for us to manage IT security to understand where the vulnerabilities are."
Chan, who emigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in 1971 to attend college, has always been fascinated with weather. Although his early career was in meteorology, he later earned a master's degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins University and also directed NASA's Goddard Distributed Active Archive Center during the mid-1990s. The center hosts earth science data, and he credits that as his transition into the IT field.
Chan had two stints with a small IT and aerospace company called Science Systems and Applications Inc., during which he was vice president of business development before returning to the federal government to work for the USDA's Economic Research Service.
Vince Breneman, who, as the Economic Research Service's geographic information systems manager, worked closely with Chan, said you "couldn't have scripted a better job there, given his background."
He described Chan as a good leader, persuasive and customer-oriented. He said Chan is a visionary and one of his strong suits is his management style.
"He really empowers his people," Breneman said. "He provided them tools. He gave an awful lot of seminars to his staff on career development, how do you make yourself better and how do you become more productive and so forth, which is quite different than normal bureaucratic methods."
Clearly, Chan's management style remains consistent. At the beginning of the interview, he said achievements and successes are a team effort. "If I use 'I,' I really mean 'we,'" he said.
However, he said the transition from a research-oriented agency to the round-the-clock operational nature of NWS caught him by surprise.
"Now, I carry my cell phone 24 hours a day," Chan said. "I put it beside my bed. I haven't gotten calls in the middle of night. Not yet. But I like the varieties of my job."