Integrated Services for Decision-makers

We live in the age of the Service Economy. In the 20th century, scientific and technological breakthroughs, particularly in computing and information technology, combined with the globalization of trade to effect a shift in many countries from manufacturing to service economies. Providing advanced services is now a major driver for the economic development of many nations. WMO too aims to strengthen service delivery through the new Commission for Weather, Climate, Water and Related Environmental Services and Applications.

But most meteorologists will claim that, from its inception, meteorology has focused largely on the development of service products – from the Storm Warnings originated by Fitzroy in 1861, through the METeorological Aerodrome Reports (METARs) and Terminal Aerodrome Forecast products (TAF) devised for the nascent aviation industry, to texts and charts for newspapers, down to today’s websites and apps (Web applications). These outputs, however, have typically been condensed quanta of information, put out into the public domain with little knowledge of how they were actually taken up and used by recipients. 

What more will the new WMO Commission for Service deliver? A paradigm shift – the integration of all weather, climate and water information and knowledge needed by decision-makers in one reliable, accessible source. Such integrated services can be defined as the provision of all relevant information that decision-makers need in their specific place, time and decision context, given the choices that they face. Thus, to begin to understand Integrated Services in meteorology, we need first to reflect on two other concepts: “Decision-makers” and “Choices.”

 

Decisions-makers

Hollywood has created dramatic images of decision-makers for us: the military leader deciding when to launch an attack; the rebels choosing when and where to stage an ambush; the police detective finally making sense of the clues and launching an operation to foil a crime. But in real life, most decisions – and decision-makers – are far less dramatic. What remains true is that decision-making is nevertheless important for the smooth functioning of civil society, and for the safety and security of all citizens.

There are a myriad of decisions made each day on which meteorological intelligence has some bearing. The transport networks that enable mobility depend crucially on weather information, be it the salting of roads in winter, the safe operation of trains in high summer, the day-to-day decisions of the “traditional” user communities in marine and aviation. The generation of electrical energy, the supply of clean water, the safe treatment and disposal of sewage, the growth of our food and the husbandry of livestock – decisions in these areas and many more, which impact on our societies, are being made every minute of every day and could benefit from meteorological input. Then there is the summation of all the individual daily decisions we make on clothing, on what transport option to take, on what food to buy… small decisions on the face of it but adding up to substantial impact overall.

 

Choices

The fact that decisions are even possible means that there are “Choices” to be considered. It is important to realize that these choices are frequently informed by factors well outside the realm of meteorology. These have to be weighed up and considered side-by-side with meteorological components to produce a good and informed decision. There is nothing new in this! Over two-and-a-half thousand years ago the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu laid out five constant factors to be appraised in assessing the likely outcome of a war:

  • The political direction
  • The weather
  • The lay of the land
  • The quality of the leadership
  • The discipline of the troops

The weather, clearly, must be seen in the holistic context of all the other variables which a decision-maker may have to consider. Thus we approach the idea of a “Weather Service”. Supplying a piece of paper with a statement of the likely weather is the provision of a product. Add to that piece of paper the opportunity to discuss its contents, the understanding by the forecaster of the options and limitations faced by the Decision-maker, the interpretation of the forecast in the light of those options and limitations and the outlining of realistic alternatives that the Decision-maker may be interested in pursuing – these are all markers of a “Service” focus that goes far beyond the supply of a product.

 

Services

Meteorology, however, encompasses far more than weather. At the World Climate Conference-3, organized in 2009 by WMO, the concept of Climate Services was brought to the forefront with the establishment of the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS). In truth, climatologists had long been providing services to planners and others, but the great increase in climate modelling now provides a broader basis for Climate Services. With probabilistic weather forecasting extending to the monthly and seasonal ranges, the basis now exists for seamless forecasting across time scales from minutes to centuries. 

Added to this is an increasing focus on Hydrology. Studies consistently show that flooding is the largest single weather-related factor in damage and economic loss from natural hazard events, while the reliable availability of water for agriculture is a growing concern as climate patterns shift. Another hazard, closely related to meteorology, is poor air quality, the severity of which is increasing in the very large urban environments. Maintaining environmental quality as a major contributor to “quality of life” while simultaneously promoting economic development has become the outstanding challenge of the 21st century.

The disparate strands of meteorology and its related disciplines – weather, climate, hydrology, oceanography, air quality, environmental quality – all derive from different areas of study, each with its own history and background. For the Decision-maker, however, these are all aspects of meteorology – all part of the natural world which to one degree or another are influenced by the behaviour of the atmosphere. 

 

Delivering Integrated Services

Thus the need for “Integrated Services” – a paradigm where the user or decision-maker can access all of the information and knowledge that they need through one reliable source. For National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) the challenge is to bring together all the disparate knowledge and wisdom within their ranks into one central point for service delivery. Indeed the provision of Integrated Services will demand, for many, partnerships with other agencies and organizations which have complementary responsibilities. For example, in most countries the public services whose remits include natural hazards contain a vast repository of information and experience, but accessing it, even by other government agencies, is not always straightforward or possible. Even in the case of emergency management, when decision-making may have critical implications for society, the availability of key information to the decision-maker is often (indeed usually) sub-optimal.

NMHSs have the opportunity to take a lead in organizing and delivering Integrated Services. Most have been in the business of delivering services for decades, and frequently incorporate a strong service ethic. Through their work in both traditional and online media, many have high levels of visibility among their citizens, and have developed the tools and reach to bring their forecasts and warnings messages to users in an efficient manner. They have earned the trust of the citizens they serve – trust that is a valuable asset for effective service delivery. NMHSs are thus well-placed to act as the focal points in channelling both their services and complementary services from partner agencies through one conduit of delivery, typically a website or a smartphone app. 

This integrated approach implies considerable background technical work in aligning information formats and having a common approach to presentation and graphic design, to help in providing information in more “usable” format to the decision-maker. These are significant challenges; first in aggregating information from many diverse sources to get a holistic view of the decision-making context, and then in delivering the integrated services via a common format or interface that can deliver information to the user in their own preferred manner. 

Fortunately, advances in science and technology bring solutions. In meteorology, the development of seamless, impact-based forecast and warning services continues apace. More generally, the advent of artificial intelligence and the ability to effectively manage “big data” provide the technical building blocks for contextualizing weather information right down to the individual user. Just as websites and apps can advertise eerily appropriate offers of products and services to us based on our user profile, so an integrated weather service provider could know enough about us (if we wished, or allowed) to provide us with personalized meteorologically-based information and advice. Such powerful information-based tools will need to be focused firmly on the public.

Integrated services from the public and private sectors

Key decision-makers – emergency managers, transport managers, energy companies, road maintenance engineers, agricultural advisors, etc. – require another level of service provision. Their decisions have wide and deep ramifications for society. A personal element is vital in service delivery to such clients. A person-to-person connection, and the building-up of trust over time between information provider and decision-maker, remains crucial. Ideally, the focal point contact person for the NMHS and the partner agencies should know something about the business and constraints of the decision-maker. 

Of course that focal point needs background support; they will not be expert in all of the topics on which they may be consulted. They will need ready access to forecasters, climatologists, hydrologists, air quality specialists and so on to help them interpret, clarify and contextualize the often complex scientific information for the decision-maker. Superb communication skills will be a must.

Growing urbanization, together with the increasing complexity and interdependence of the infrastructure that supports urban society, provides the need – and opportunity – for more wide-ranging and focused public weather services. These should encompass continuous innovation in delivery allied to excellence in meteorological, hydrological and atmospheric science.

Weather services providers in the private sector – frequently at the forefront in developing focused and innovative services for specific categories of users – will face the same challenges. In addition to the more traditional categories of users, there are now many more “new” users of meteorological and hydrological information – the insurance industry, retail businesses, the financial sector and more. The business-to-business opportunities for detailed, focused weather information is almost limitless.

 

Planning for the future

Meteorology has made tremendous scientific progress over the past four or five decades. Our ability to detect, measure, understand and predict atmospheric phenomena and events would seem incredible to those who worked in our field in the mid-20th century. Yet, all of that knowledge and information is worthless unless it is used to inform and support decisions. The challenge now faced by meteorology is to match the quality of science that we have achieved with a commensurate quality in the delivery of services.

The re-structuring of the existing WMO Technical Commissions to include the new Commission for Services follows from a realization that the current structures do not adequately support a holistic approach to service delivery. Good service delivery, regardless of the specific user or economic sector, is based around a group of common attributes which are clearly articulated in the “WMO Guide to Service Delivery.” The new Commission for Services structure should enable a more effective focus on these common attributes, ensuring that services are impact-based, fit-for-purpose, quality controlled, properly incorporate social science, are provided by competent personnel and delivered via innovative and integrated delivery mechanisms.

In short, Integrated Services can be a route to excellence in decision-support, ensuring that NMHSs are centrally placed to support governments in discharging their essential responsibilities and to support users in making their most critical decisions.

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