NOAA opens data

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials adopted a new policy last week to promote open Internet standards rather than the traditional proprietary standards specific to the weather information community.

"NOAA will make its data and products available in Internet-accessible, vendor-neutral form and will use other dissemination technologies" such as satellite, radio and wireless devices, according to the policy recently posted on NOAA's Web site. "Information will comply with recognized standards, formats and metadata descriptions to ensure data from different observing platforms, databases and models can be integrated and used by all interested parties."

Officials and technology observers say the decision will allow greater innovation using weather information. "It means a lot for the weather service, but it's also significant for government information generally," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

For years, information from the National Weather Service has been distributed by private data companies such as AccuWeather. Critics of the system say taxpayers, in effect, paid twice for the data: once with their tax dollars, and again through fees to the commercial provider.

Now, another "company can come along and program some neat weather application that we've never heard of before," Schwartz said.

Proponents say Extensible Markup Language and other open standards help the government distribute information in an easily usable format that lets other companies or individuals provide analysis or extra services without having to pay another organization for the data. "This is a trend we've seen in the government, going back to EDGAR in the early '90s," Schwartz said, referring to the Securities and Exchange Commission's popular database of investor-related documents.

EDGAR documents are available free online through the SEC site. Some online vendors charge fees for access to Web sites that organize EDGAR data and make it more easily searchable.

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