The Grand Larceny of Accu-Weather

We’ve seen plenty of bold and brazen corporate thievery in recent years. “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli upped the price of life-saving medicine 5000% because he could; he’s now serving years in the pen for securities fraud. There was the Enron bunch, led by Jeff Skilling, who created blackouts in San Francisco and the west coast in the early 2000s by manipulating the temporarily de-regulated California electric market. The traders were caught on tape laughing about stealing money from the “poor grandmothers.” Such a grand level of avarice is hard to stomach, but one that tops them all must be Barry Myers. Because Myers has been trying to steal the weather.

There’s a backstory, of course. A grain of legitimacy, a swirl of political intrigue, a schadenfreude twist of fate, and a who-knows-what-happens-next part to this tale. The most important question to me is exactly which circle of hell Myers will end up in, the one where his shade is bitten by snakes or the one where he is thrown into the lake of boiling pitch?

Thieves in Dante's Hell
Gustave Dore depiction of the section of Dante’s Malbolge circle of Hell specifically for Thieves

Commerce Is Not Always Entirely Business

First off, it’s important to know a little about where weather information comes from. We can debate all day long about which commercial service has the nicest widgets, most useful app, the most accurate long-term forecasts, or the easiest interface. But one thing is irrefutable: the majority of data used in forecasts is collected and created by the taxpayer-funded National Weather Service.

National Weather U.S. visual map
National Weather Service data models that make a Visual Data Geek weep with joy

The NWS is one of those government entities that everybody wants and needs. The agency was established after the Civil War by President Grant under the (War) Defense Department because of its obvious need by the military, then later moved to the Department of Agriculture given how farmers relied on its data. In 1940, it was shifted to the Department of Commerce and in 1966 placed under the Environmental Services division which was renamed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As of 2015, the NOAA with the weather service component was almost 40% of the budget for the Commerce Department.

In all, NOAA collects 20 terabytes of data a day; NWS computers spit out a free, global forecast every six hours. Fisherman and other sailors rely on it to determine if it’s safe to go out to sea. Natural gas traders check it because millions of dollars are at stake if the weather changes suddenly. Commercial forecasters such as AccuWeather use it to provide specially tailored analyses for home-improvement stores.

Bloomberg Businessweek, June 14, 2018

The fact that so much of the Commerce Department is focused on data related to the environment and weather may be surprising, since weather information wouldn’t seem inherently to be a business function. Yet, you can well imagine how much businesses rely on weather information.

Such weather information relies on three things: data collection, data interpretation for predictive purposes, and communication of those predictions. The thousands of scientists working for NWS do all three, using a few dozen weather satellites as well as private planes and millions of tracking stations. Technology in recent decades has also vastly improved forecast accuracy. A three to five-day forecast now typically beats a one-day forecast from the 1960s because of the way computers can handle more data, create improved and updatable models, and depict results in graphics that are easier to interpret. That is, in fact, where private weather services enter the picture.

Private companies like The Weather Channel and AccuWeather jumped into the fray when computer technology and broadband/cable systems allowed predictive information to be augmented and then discussed 24/7. Now, we have an entire section of the media devoted to depicting Storm Chasers and the History of Disasters.

AccuWeather, formed in the 1960s by Pennsylvania meteorologist professor Dr. Joel Myers, transformed itself from a weather forecasting services to a 21st century “media company.” As outlined by Michael Lewis, in his excellent book The Fifth Risk (which I credit with inspiring today’s essay), what AccuWeather got good at was marketing itself. The company touted itself as the best predictor of the weather and began to devote itself to re-packaging weather data (collected primarily by the NWS) for specific industries.

Today, AccuWeather claims to be “recognized and documented as the most accurate source of weather forecasts and warnings in the world.” It’s an interesting claim for two reasons. First, while the company has created its own capabilities for modeling, interpreting, and packaging the results, the thousands of observations it obtains weather from stations and satellites don’t come solely from AccuWeather. (It also uses “crowdsourcing” which makes me wonder whether those in the crowd ought to be told about how it operates).

Secondly, the claim about “most accurate”… depends. Forecast Watch, an independent group that compares forecasters, has conducted studies which show that the most accurate label belongs sometimes to The Weather Channel, sometimes to AccuWeather, and sometimes to other entities, like Weather Underground or WeatherBug. It also depends on whether you are considering wind speed, average temperatures, highs, lows, or forecasts over a certain number of days. One aspect of AccuWeather’s modeling that is definitely not accurate: long-term forecasts. While the company provides 30 and 45-day forecasts, those have been shown repeatedly to be wildly inaccurate. Their website doesn’t mention this, of course, but you can find plenty of studies that confirm this inaccuracy.

Should All Potatoes Come Through Frito-Lays?

So what? We all love to make fun of the inaccuracy of meteorologists and can continue to do so. But the problem became crystallized with the National Weather Duties Act of 2005. As AccuWeather built its data-packaging and hyper-forecasting service into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the Pennsylvania-based company convinced Senator Rick Santorum to introduce an interesting piece of legislation. The NWS Duties Act would have virtually eliminated the public distribution of weather data by the NWS except in the cases of severe weather alerts, which itself would have been subject to interpretation.

McDonald's French fries
Suppose all your potatoes had to be purchased directly from McDonald’s? photo by Bill Greenblatt

AccuWeather made–and continues to make–the argument that its ability to compete with the information provided by the National Weather service is unfair. It would be prefer to take the data collected (which we taxpayers pay for) and sell it back to us.

Barry Myers, CEO and brother to Joel, claimed that the competition is like Fed Ex trying to compete with the Post Office if the Post Office were free. However, it’s really more like Fed Ex using the Post Office facilities to collect and sort mail, riding in the Post Office truck with a P.O. driver, then getting out of the truck at your house and handing you your mail with a flourish. That’ll be twenty dollars please. Or, as another Internet commenter described it, it’s like a french fry or potato chip company claiming that all potato farmers are unfair competition. Here’s your bag of Lay’s, $1.69, and your bag of potatoes, twenty dollars please. (By the way, odd weather due to climate change may account for a poor potato crop this year, which may lead to a french fry shortage–but that’s another story).

Santorum’s bill fortunately never made it out of committee. The fact that he accepted thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the Myers was well-publicized. Myers and Santorum continued to complain that the weather service “unfairly” provided information that AccuWeather wanted to sell. Author Lewis believes this is one reason that there’s currently no app from the National Weather Service. AccuWeather also continues to stir the pot, for example, by providing its own Hurricane Warning Scale that differs from the generally used Saffir-Simpson Scale. Confusion gets created, AccuWeather owns the channels on which it disseminates “its version,” until the pay-based scale will come into use. Want to know if it’s a Category 4 or Category 5? Twenty dollars, please.

Putting the Fox in Charge of All Food Supplies to Everyone in America

Why worry about a bill dead in committee in 2005? If you haven’t googled it by now, here’s the kicker. Guess who was the current administration’s nominee to run the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association, which houses the National Weather Service? You guessed it. Barry Myers.

Barry Myers testifying
Barry Lee Myers (R) with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) (L), during hearing to become administrator of NOAA, November 2017. Photo by Mark Wilson

It might not sound like the most egregious example of people nominated inappropriately, since January 2017, to head agencies. Candidly, I thought the problem with the nomination was Myers’ history in denying climate change, lack of a scientific background, or lobbying to buy the nomination with donations (all of which are true). But while I have outrage fatigue over the naked greed in defense contracting and the steel industries profiting from tariffs, when it comes to the weather, I have skin in that game. I would like to continue to get my reasonably accurate weather forecasts, one way or another, for free, thank you very much.

Myers’ nomination stalled out in 2017, but he was re-nominated in 2018 and 2019 and had gained significant momentum in the Senate as of April year. Fortunately, the American taxpayers may have lucked out. The #MeToo movement and the data privacy watchdogs may help turn the tide. It turns out that AccuWeather in 2017 was found to be selling user data to third-parties even when it turned out users had denied it access to location data.

The story gets better. The Department of Labor in 2018 found, after a complaint generated a lengthy investigation, that there was widespread sexual harassment and discrimination across the company, known to management but not acted upon. Dozens of complainants described unwanted contact, exchange of favors for promotions, and downgrades or “blacklisting” of those who refused to participate. AccuWeather denies the claims but the company paid a large settlement in 2018.

Myers resigned from his post as CEO in January 2019, presumably to enable him to better serve as NOAA director. With the additional sexual harassment information that came to light afterwards, he may or may not return to the company. The Senate could be waiting for the raft of negative publicity to “blow over,” and he could still be confirmed in time to create processes that remove NWS from public access.

The debate isn’t whether you should contact your Senator, should Myers’ confirmation come back up for serious consideration. It’s not whether you should cease from using AccuWeather as your data source. The real question is exactly what circle of hell Barry Myers will eventually fall into.

Dante’s Eight Circle of Hell was the Malebolge, and it included such groups as the panderers, simoniacs (who sold church pardons), hypocrites, and astrologers. Those seem rather tame in comparison to the outright Thieves and Barrators (also called grafters). Barrators were those who combined political influence with greed, using the public trust to grab money for themselves. In their section of Malebolge, they were thrown into boiling pitch and, if they attempted to climb out, would be forked back in by demons or pulled out and taken someplace worse. The Thieves, on the other hand, were encircled by serpents who would bite and sting them repeatedly, sucking out a little of their essence just as they had done to others in life.

Dante's Hell for political influencers
Barrators thrown into the boiling pitch, illustration by Nancy Castille

So feel free to join the debate. Exactly what part of Malebolge do you think should house Barry Myers?

Author’s Note: I do make a point of trying to avoid political topics and will continue to do so, but this is the Weather. Weather should not be politicized or up for sale.

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