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State forecaster overdue for healthy competition

Some of you may have picked up on a small spat between myself and MetService last week.

I tweeted in frustration after I was told that couldn’t receive thunderstorm warnings automatically, despite these warnings being state-funded and the public safety risk of people not seeing them on our site.

I’m not going to discuss the details of that particular issue here in my column, as we managed to resolve this with them on Friday evening.

But the Herald on Sunday editor made the valid point that this has brought the debate into the public domain, and it is something that I need to address.

I’m calling on the Government to look at the state-owned enterprise model and to ask the question: “Do we need to monetise everything in weather?” The way the Government set up MetService in the early 1990s was unusual compared with other countries. In fact, as far as I’m aware there isn’t any other country that runs its national weather service this way.

MetService is an excellent brand and it has some of the best weather forecasters in the country, but this powerful brand, backed by government funding and big government clients, comes at the expense of any serious competition.

The weather industry has been deregulated for almost 20 years, yet there has never been serious competition. You have to ask what forces are stopping that.

I believe my comments were fair – and balanced. In August we went out of our way to thank MetService for the fantastic job of warning us about the Antarctic blast – and I also praised a new member of its forecast team. I’ve also thanked MetService publicly for its assistance in working with us to develop the main part of our new warnings page. It’s not all negative.

My motivation is to help bring New Zealand into line with most other developed nations, such as Australia, Canada and the United States, when it comes to the weather industry.

We are missing out on some exciting weather features, currently only accessible if you want to pay plenty for them. This is where the Government has it wrong. I want a public forecaster that puts people first. In my opinion, SOEs are not the best models for achieving that.

– Homepage image / File, Zelda Wynn

Philip Duncan writes a weekly column for the Herald on Sunday


Text Alert Ltd on 26/09/2011 12:09am

Hi Phil

I agree with your comments. I worked for the Met Service before it becme a SOE and they have always provided a great service. However in trying to set up a text warning system they wanted to sell us information  @$50 for 30 secs work ( I actually did what they would be required to do and that is how long it took me) and as a result we will now get the information from you. You are providing the competition Phil. Also you have human observers around the country which Met Service doesn’t have hence our decision to use WW. You’re much more professional and business like with your operation.  Stuart

Andrew on 25/09/2011 8:16pm

I personally think that Metservice do a very good job and don’t think they need to make every single piece of information available.  I mean, do we really need updated sattelite images every 10 minutes?  Isn’t every hour enough.

On thing private weather companies do is ignore areas that they don’t make money out of.  Weatherwatch was guilty of this yesterday (Sunday).  A severe weather watch was out for the top of the South Island for heavy showers, hail and thunder from later afternoon.  Weatherwatch didn’t even mention it.  I bet if it was forecast for Auckland there would have been hourly updates under the Developing Story banner.

Metservice, for all their faults, do forecast for the whole country without bias.   Weatherwatch add to this with generally decent comment.

WW Forecast Team on 25/09/2011 10:23pm

Hi Andrew – you raise an excellent point re: warnings and is precisely the reason why we’re now working with MetService to display every one of their warnings on our website.  Currently the only warnings that make it on our site fall under the “news” category which is why we don’t display them all.  Once we’ve finished building this page it will address the issue of only focusing on the bigger or more urban weather warnings.  However we often don’t run stories on watches – even the ones for Auckland – but again we’re hoping to fix that soon.  Unfortnuately MetService don’t have data feeds for us for all of their warnings so we’re having to do some extra work to make it display for us, but we are getting there and we had a positive conversation with MetService on Friday evening.

With regards to hourly satellite images (I’m assuming you meant radar images?) the hourly ones are definitely not good enough.  In fact, a fast moving thunderstorm with tornado potential might zip through within that hour and not be detected in either of the hourly images.  Hourly satellite images are fine but hourly radar images are not – and no other western country does it this way.  It’s controlled this way purely for commercial reasons.

We also agree that not all of MetService’s products need to be free – but currently the public of NZ are missing out on something that most other countries consider to be one of the most important public safety features of weather forecasting and that’s animated radar images which cover much of the country and are updated every few minutes.  It’s this service that allows you to see if a severe band of rain, squalls or even tornados will hit your house or not.

– WW

Allen Pidwell on 25/09/2011 8:05am

I agree entirely. In a book on the weather I read recently the author commented that New Zealand was the only OECD country which did not provide free and constant rain radar service to the public and noted that this was certainly detrimental to public safety.

RW on 25/09/2011 3:28am

The artificial and ridiculous split producing Met Service and NIWA was courtesy of Rogernomics – and even the last Labour government wasn’t interested in reversing it.

Gary on 25/09/2011 12:29am

Metservice should definitely be providing a basic service for free, but they could argue that they are saving the taxpayers money by charging for specific services. For example if an oil company wants a swell forecast for their oil rig, then Joe Taxpayer shouldn’t be paying for that. On the other hand, radar loops would count as a basic service for any modern met service and any bean counter could do a cost analysis to prove that. What you need to decide is what counts as a basic service that should be provided for free. Here is a list of all the world’s met services It’s interesting to flick through and see what other countries do.

WW Forecast Team on 25/09/2011 12:49am

Great comment Gary – and you raise some excellent points!  Thanks also for the link, I’m sure many will find it useful to see what other nations provide.

– WW

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