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Weathering the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill storm

By Steve Pike

The people have spoken, and the government has listened. But the question remains: has the South African Weather Service (Saws) listened?

Positive outcomes in Parliament are pending after the public hearing last week on the draft South African Weather Service Amendment Bill, driven by assurances from ANC MP Johnny de Lange that controversial wording would be excised, amended or replaced.

De Lange – chairman of the Water and Environmental Affairs committee overseeing the process – assured niche-supported weather providers that their non-official forecasting services were no longer under scrutiny. The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), fearing restraints on the media, approved of De Lange’s promise to scrap the clause requiring the issuer of severe weather or air pollution warnings to get written permission from the weather service.

However, if legislators follow through with de Lange’s request in the forthcoming weeks to dig deeper into Saws and how it manages freedom of access to its information, the heat will be on the weather service to streamline its systems, particularly to dilute a possible conflict of interest where money and monopoly go hand in hand. As De Lange noted during the hearings, the commercial interests of the private company behind Saws cannot be allowed to compromise the public good.

Submissions to the portfolio committee came from weather experts, NPOs and small alternative companies specialising in aspects of weather forecasting such as weather.co.za, wavescape.co.za, Satellite Imaging Systems and others. Also present were representatives from AfriForum, Sanef and The Society of Master Mariners of South Africa. Derek van Dam, e.tv’s chief meteorologist, was there with a team of lawyers. So were journalists and camera crews. The HAM radio niche was represented by HAMNET Emergency Solutions (the Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Network).

Louis Botha, a former employee of Saws, introduced himself as a “whistleblower” sacked from the organisation for exposing irregularities. He did not go into detail.

Submissions prepared as protest or criticism against the well-publicised faults with the draft Bill had to change on the fly as De Lange, with the participation of DA shadow minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Gareth Morgan, conceded that a number of clauses were impractical and out of date.

De Lange assured those in the Old Assembly Chamber that small weather services would not be affected by the Bill. The law would be aimed at unqualified rogue sources issuing ‘life and death’ hoax warnings that potentially caused panic and/or wasted taxpayer money via emergency services response. The clause that allows for legal censure (up to R5-million in fines or five years in jail) would be reserved only for these – a concession partly rooted in the overwhelming and comforting public outcry. The response shows just how many South Africans rely on other sources for their weather, an indictment of our ‘official’ weather provider, which for some time has come under fire for what many perceive to be an overly bureaucratic handling of weather forecasts and attempts to monetise these at the expense of the public’s right to know.

The potential for a weather monopoly has diminished because the government accepts that Saws is not the only weather warning service in town. That is a good start. But even better is that the outcry against the Bill has served to underline flaws in the organisation. This is the most rewarding and constructive outcome because Saws and the fundamental weaknesses in its business plan have been “outed”. Part of the strong criticism included a hard-hitting presentation by weather.co.za owner Randolf Jorberg.

Before his allotted 10-minute talk, Jorberg got a “severe dress code warning” by an angry De Lange after the young German was told he disrespected Parliament and its traditions by arriving in shorts, a T-shirt and ‘thongs’. Regathering his composure, Jorberg went on to say that rare and almost anonymous hoaxes could not be stopped by legislation; the solution was better information.

He reminded the assembly that the founding Saws Act of 2001 bound our official weather service to Resolution 40 of the World Meteorological Organisation in which members should “strengthen their commitment to the free and unrestricted exchange of meteorological and related data and products” and “increase the volume of data and products exchanged to meet the needs of WMO Programmes”.

But what will the impact be on this mandate for transparent access to data now that a private company called Intelligence Systems (Pty) Ltd was running the official website www.weathersa.co.za? The company falls under the umbrella company Future Foresight Group, who boast on their front page:

“In 2008, FF rebuilt the SA Weather Service website (SA’s second most trafficked website) as the precursor to commercialising the Weather Service. After a January launch, Weather Intelligence Solutions became cash-flow positive in mid-2009, and will become a substantial business over the next three years.

While it may be fair to monetise Saws, what if monetary gain creates too much of a carrot to deviate from the mandate to government and the people of South Africa?

“It can’t be pure coincidence that this legislation can be used against all private competition in a very monopolistic way,” Jorberg said. “The Bill clearly doesn’t help to create fair relations between private companies and the SA Weather Service.”

Jorberg said the Bill would contravene Annex 3 to the above WMO resolution, which laid down guidelines for relations between a national weather service and commercial services. The annex states that both sectors should recognise the other’s contributions to the industry, and the benefit of mutual co-operation.

“In the case where the national service of a country, particularly of a developing country, were to consider itself affected by the commercial sector’s commercial use of data [that] originated in its own country, all parties should negotiate to achieve a satisfactory agreement.”

The issue of freedom of information and collaboration with other groups was raised by several speakers including myself. Part of this submission was a call on Saws, with its sometimes dry, overly jargonised and more macro approach to weather, to work with small entities with micro specialist skills. “I would call on the Saws to investigate areas of collaboration with smaller more specialised weather groupings. While we lack the broader reach and macro level resources at the disposal of the Saws, we bring to the table a specialised focus that could add further value to the overall public offering.”

Saws was urged to emulate groups in the United States such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who make their data freely available in the public domain. Part of the problem has been inefficient Saws communication, with access to information bogged down by a poorly constructed website with confusing navigation, and a schizophrenic identity that tries to marry a public service with a private company driven by profit.

De Lange said: “I’ve got no problem with commercialisation but there are some services that may not, should not, be commercialised, If we see some services that should be more freely available then we’ll engage in the weather bureau with those. I am worried more about citizens and the flow of information about weather so they can regulate their lives in a way that can keep them safe and the citizens around them.”

The SA Weather Service website has undergone several confusing iterations, with the latest attempt to monetise its services evoking fees for people who wish to subscribe to certain more specialised weather alerts, offering packages priced between R40 and R180 per month.

Services you get when you subscribe include Nowcasting 2D (“real time weather warning system which monitors a 15km radius from your exact location. Track storms, lightning and other elements that will affect your location on our animated maps”); site alarms (“notifications for storms and lightning every day, unusual weather notices and forewarning of storms 1 hour prior, 30min prior and exactly when the storm hits”); and site alerts (“We let you know what weather you should expect for tomorrow and notify of any unusual weather activity”).

The question one needs to ask is: by keeping this information from people who do not pay for the service, is Saws compromising public safety? It is understood that services can be sold to, for instance, the agricultural and fishing sectors if they are profiting from the knowledge, i.e when to plant crops or how to maximise fishing yields.

But what of the public good?

Other services you get when you pay are SMSs about unusual weather and storm warnings, animated radar, provincial storm tracking, as well as rain and wind animations.

“Information is the currency of democracy,” said Thomas Jefferson.

But that does not mean it must be bought.

Steve Pike, aka Spike, is the founder of www.wavescape.co.za. As a surf forecaster, he analyses marine data from the Wave Watch III model in the United States, and his easy-to-understand and often colourful interpretations are depended on by 25 000 coastal dwellers. Spike has consulted to several surfing events, including Red Bull Big Wave Africa, Quiksilver Goodwave, O’Neill Coldwater Classic and Mr Price Pro. He also lectures in the dynamics of waves, storm tracking and data analysis. In 2006 he published the surfing guide, “Surfing in South Africa”.

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  • A parliament that doesn’t respect itself
  • Suspicion-mongering to discredit critical civil society