Case Study: Free data access – the experience of the Israel Meteorological Service

In 2012, the Israel Meteorological Service (IMS) started providing free access to most of its real-time data and historical observations. This marked a dramatic change in policy for the organization. Until then, most of its operational budget, excluding salaries, depended on the generation of income by billing for data and services. The IMS experience – the benefits and challenges of moving to a free data model – will catch the interest of other national meteorological services considering a similar move.

Funding models based on the sale of such information often present a serious barrier to the free access open data model. Thus, meteorological services considering a switch will face a range of technical and policy issues, but a principal concern will be the loss of revenues. Without an alternative source of revenue, it will be impossible for them to maintain observational networks and fund data processing and quality control. In this regard, IMS presents a useful case study.

Difficulties faced before free data model

Before the move to free access, revenues from billing data and services at IMS had to cover its operational budget and permit IMS to fulfil international obligations to WMO and other organizations, to maintain weather stations and to deploy radiosonde equipment. IMS sold data and products, including tailor-made forecasts and climatic analysis. This, however, raised practical and moral problems.Private good took priority over public good – IMS focused more on finding clients, answering calls for tender and providing services to paying customers than on important public good projects. Private sector queries, for example, burdened the climate department so much that they had little time for projects such as the production of a climate atlas, wind energy atlas and climate change analysis. 

The generation of revenue actually created new expenses for IMS and decreased efficiency as data-invoicing required key personnel from both the economic and meteorological sections. In addition, as IMS generated most of its income by billing other governmental agencies, the flow of money was internal to the government – from one pocket to the other – but created a lot of administrative costs.  Competition between IMS and the private sector did not really follow free market rules. IMS, as part of the government, had a fixed price known to the private sector, which they could underbid. 

When governmental agencies could not afford to buy high-quality IMS data due to budget constraints, they were tempted to use low-quality, freely available data on the Internet. Alternative networks sprung up due to the restrictions placed on publication or distribution of IMS data, causing duplication and additional governmental expenses. 

High IMS prices dissuaded private companies from developing IMS database products or applications, although these companies could not afford to establish their own observational networks. Academics could not afford to purchase the vast amount of data they required for research as prices were too high even though IMS gave them discounts. Many turned to alternative sources of data – often lacking quality control – or used lower resolution products. 

Growing demand for IMS data among government agencies, complaints about costs and the complications of paying for such data and the new “open government” web-policy occurred together and permitted IMS to change its funding model. An agreement was reached with the Transport and Finance Ministries for a fixed yearly budget in exchange for making all data accessible to the public, free of charge. 

Prioritizing public good

Under the new framework, IMS has re-focused on the provision of basic meteorological services  for the public good, free of charge, while leaving the tailoring of meteorological services to the private sector. The basic IMS services include:

Forecasts and warnings; regular, and special, climatological reports, climate atlases and climate change monitoring reports; and products from IMS Numerical Weather Prediction models, all freely available on the IMS website.

Aviation and marine sector forecasts and warnings, as well as climatological information, which meet international standards and requirements (products with further added value are supplied by the private sector).

Meteorological data from IMS stations, including near- and real-time data from Automated Weather Stations and historical, quality-controlled climatological data, available free-of-charge through a dedicated government website. Private companies can access and use the data to develop special products for sale but cannot simply sell the data.

Meteorological information for the various government ministries is supplied free-of-charge to their specifications.

The free data model permits IMS to fulfil all of these basic duties and to centre resources on advising the government on weather and climate related issues and on conducting research to improve the usability of meteorological information by the government.

The new framework has brought many benefits. Tasks requiring significant time investment but little technical expertise have been drastically reduced, thus the focus is once again on activities requiring meteorological skill. Professional staff now have sufficient time to focus on activities of national priority and important projects – wind energy atlas, climate atlas, climate change monitoring analysis – are no longer delayed. 

The reputation of IMS as a service provider has improved and the tension with government agencies previously viewed as clients has ended. Cooperation with other government agencies is much better, especially the relationship between IMS and the emergency and rescue authorities.

In light of the experience gained since 2012, IMS recommends that other national providers, who wish to take the free data access route, take care that their data dissemination platform be clear and simple to use and provide the means to download large amounts of data simultaneously. The IMS free data policy reform was rapid and comprehensive but one can take a gradual, step-by-step approach by first providing, for example, only raw data and  retaining forecasting service revenues.

The IMS example suggests that, where agreements can be reached within governments, new funding frameworks based on free and open access can provide a wide range of benefits to the public and private sectors, as well as to the meteorological services themselves.   

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