On the Road Again!

November 9, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director. From the AMS project, Living on the Real World

Remember those road-weather folks who were meeting in Indianapolis around September 1st? They’re back. Many of those same players, and a few new ones, are picking up their conversation again today and tomorrow, here in DC. You can find the details at the road-weather policy forum website.

The meetings and discussions will be of interest in and of themselves. In some areas of our lives, weather is vital, but we can do little more than sigh. Give a

In the road weather community, stovepipes can make music, too.

farmer thirty minutes notice of a coming hailstorm? He’s going to lose his wheat crop anyway; he can just start the grieving process half an hour sooner. In other venues, we’ve got plenty of weather information, but we’ve made it less relevant. That’s why offices are housed in buildings… and why we have domed football stadiums.

But roadways are an intersection (forgive me…too tempting!) where (1) weather affects safety and the economy, and where (2) those affected – the drivers, the traffic managers, the roadway maintenance folks, the businesses dependent on supply lines fed by road – if given the right information in the right way, can actually do something about it. A hailstorm is coming? Traffic managers can put out the word; drivers in the hailstorm’s path can divert or stand down until the hazard passes. Snow is on the way? We can get out the trucks with the plows and salt. And people are using the roadways to get from home to the office, or to that football game, aren’t they? Even in this age of virtual connectivity, physical connection still matters, commercially and socially, and much of that connection is made by roadway.

So road weather is a very special topic, rich with potential for improving the human condition.

We also find road weather to be an interesting example – a microcosm, if you will – of policy issues that play across what appears at first blush to be a “stovepiped” landscape. But let’s probe a little deeper. In this instance, we find leaders who see their institutions as the organ pipes they are, and are jamming, playing a little music together (to build on yesterday’s metaphor from my post, “Stovepipes! The Musical“). They’re effectively working across boundaries – boundaries separating::

Federal agencies. The DoC/NOAA/National Weather Service and the DoT/Federal Highway Administration each have a piece of the puzzle, don’t they? To be valuable, weather information must be applied. As the FHWA tries to make road travel and commerce safer and more efficient, it must integrate weather with traffic conditions, road maintenance, and other elements of the mix. To be useful, the agencies need each other! At the policy forum, they’ll be signing an memorandum of understanding (MOU) – a policy document – committing to another five years’ collaboration on road weather research and services.

And by the way, there are policy interfaces within each of those two Cabinet-level Departments, aren’t there? FHWA is competing with its rather larger sister agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Maritime Administration (MARAD), and many more, for attention at the top. NWS is always trying to make sure that NOAA remembers weather as it allocates attention and resources across fish, satellites, oceans, research, climate, and other competing concerns. And NOAA in turn looks up and hopes that DoC leadership notices its relevance to international trade, demographics, standards, and other departmental preoccupations.

Federal and state governments. Road maintenance and traffic control are the purview of fifty state governments, not the federal agencies. So part of the challenge becomes how to take information and resources developed at the federal level and transfer that to the states. But wait! That’s far too one-sided a view. It’s equally important that road-level experience and knowledge generated in the states inform the way the federal agencies see and set about their mission. And what about all those big urban areas, such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, and others that lie at state borders and span multiple jurisdictions? Working across the interfaces is critical to effectiveness there.

The private and public sectors. Much of the weather data collected and information developed by NWS is delivered to the states and to drivers themselves via the private sector: TV and radio stations. But even these linkages are not direct. Yet other private-sector intermediaries package the information for broadcast use. And some TV and radio stations outsource their weather reports to more-specialized weather-services firms rather than convey reports through their own staff. And wait again! Only a small fraction of the surface weather data collected in this country are collected by NOAA, or even the federal agencies. State agencies, and private-sector firms collect these data and aggregate them in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes. Who should benefit from this work? Who should pay for it, and how?

While you’re at it, throw academia into the mix. What’s the role of faculty at research universities? What R&D can they do as faculty, and when and how should they be allowed or encouraged or forced to join a start-up private firm to pursue their work? And how should they be encouraged, or allowed to partner up with the for-profit and government players?

NGOs too play a role. That’s why you’ll find the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, ITS America, the American Meteorological Society and others at the Forum.

Vehicles themselves are the sleeping giant. Potentially, 100 million vehicles could be tapped for their on-board weather information – for everything from surface temperature to rain intensity, and road conditions.

And, here as earlier, the information flow is not one-way. Auto manufacturers, weather-sensor manufacturers also have help and ideas to offer with regard to policy – what will enable them to better serve the public. Finally, because the public-sector- and private-sector collaborations differ from one state to the next, national and global corporations (the auto manufacturers as well as the service providers) have to factor these policy differences into every decision and action.

The engineers and physical scientists, and the social scientists. Do you like drivers who have lost all situational awareness because they are making phone calls and texting instead of looking at the road, cars, and pedestrians in front of them? Then you’ll love drivers who are also looking at little weather displays on their blackberries, iPods, and Garmans. Where do human factors and information overload play in? And how should these activities be regulated and by whom?

These and other boundaries separating all the players in road weather science, services, and policy? They’re not a symptom of a broken system. Far from it! They have all arisen for a reason, as hinted in my blog post yesterday. Transcending these boundaries for public benefit, and maybe garnering a little profit along the way? That challenge might make most of us tired. But today’s forum participants are energized by the opportunity. They’re making sweet music together.

If you listen carefully you can hear the opening strains on the organ… Could that be On the Road Again?