Volume 57 (4) — October 2008

Political, economic, technological and cultural influences that will shape service delivery in the next decade

by David Grimes*

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Introduction

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There are several key influences presenting significant challenges and opportunities when considering the evolution of national public weather services (PWS) programmes today. A diagnosis of these factors should provide insights into effective planning and development of relevant, user-defined products and services of National Meteorological and Hydrological Services (NMHSs) in the future.

Global trends in demographics, changing climate, public security, economic competitiveness and unsustainable use of the Earth’s resources are challenging societies’ capacities to cope. Governments are under enormous pressure to mitigate against these escalating risks for their citizens in such concerns as food security, water availability and health. PWS can play a key role in alleviating these challenges.

Glimpse of the future

NMHSs should be an essential part of this public policy response by providing the relevant information and services to permit society to adapt to future changes in weather, climate and other dimensions of the environment over very short- to long-term timescales. Their public weather service programmes should become increasingly recognized as providing an expanding core mission-critical capacity for government in more and more nations to cope with these public policy challenges.

National public weather service programmes should, therefore, be different in a decade; however, this will require significant organizational commitment (change and investment) to become a reality. Early recognition and adaptation to changing circumstances (trends) will create opportunities for public weather services to better serve governments and greater numbers of people and interests over the long term. As a consequence, societies will effectively benefit from the assimilation of new and changing environmental information into policy-formulation and decision-making processes that will likely challenge past customs and assumptions.

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The enormous potential of public weather services
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Noteworthy barometers

Public weather services are the “public” and often the “political” face of NMHSs. For most of them, the provision of services is scientifically complex. The figure overleaf illustrates typical interactions of various systems functioning to support them.

This visualization is also important to better appreciate the importance of monitoring two key barometers: advances in science and technology and public policy expectations. Both should have a pervasive influence on the products and services of NMHSs in the future. Public expectations, including those of their institutions, are shaped by transformative trends in the economy society and the environment at global and local levels.

Often, these trends result, eventually, in shifts in government policy that have an impact on the scope of national public weather service programmes. For that reason, their successful evolution will strongly depend upon the degree to which NMHSs engage their citizens, clients and partners in establishing priorities, adapt to shifts in their government’s public policy and integrate advances in science and technology into their public weather service (weather forecast) systems.

 

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Key global influences

Natural and human-induced changes in the Earth’s land surface, atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere and biosphere will continue to impact our planet significantly, impeding the social and economic progress of all nations. Scientific information, assessments and predictions derived from systematic monitoring are essential to support improved decision-making and informed, evidence-based policy development, underpinning legislation, conventions and treaties across a wide range of societal challenges. Specifically, several common key global influences1, 2 affect how governments see the role of PWS in the future and, hence, their products.

First and perhaps foremost, public weather services will be called upon to support their governments’ goals to reduce vulnerability to a changing climate. Adaptation responses will be informed by understanding changing patterns and severity of weather, climate and water. Concerns over the natural environment are growing in importance, particularly the impacts that pertain to sustainable development. Adaptation responses will be informed by understanding changing patterns and the severity of weather, climate and water events.

Population growth and changing demographic patterns will result in continued intensification in urban centres, ageing populations in developed countries and significant growth in developing ones.

The use of scarce resources such as water and energy will be a challenge; public weather services will be expected to support local governments in allocating the wise use of these resources.

Human health concerns will continue to mount, both in the developed and developing world, requiring improved Earth system predictions to track and aid in the forecasting of conditions leading to possible outbreaks of disease.

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The world continues to be unstable and will likely be so in the foreseeable future. Governments concerned about the growing security of citizens, particularly in the context of natural and human-induced hazards will turn more and more to public weather services for support in alleviating these risks. This should not be a surprise, in view of our unique science and service delivery capacities today and what they should resemble in future.

Economic globalization respects no borders. Changes in stock market volatility in one part of the globe have almost immediate impacts on others. Globalization is putting increased pressure on nations to become more innovative and competitive in order to remain effective. As economies continue to look for more niches in the future, environmental factors will continue to have an impact on their performance. Utilization of PWS will almost certainly bring about economic advantages for transportation and primary industries such as agriculture and agri-food.

In the future, due to liberal finance and trade policies, competitiveness factors and alternative governance considerations, non-State actors may assume many of the roles once established for NMHSs, both for profit and not-for-profit services. Efficiency and effectiveness considerations are important for reaffirming national or State roles for NMHSs.

Finally, sustainable growth is the culmination of all the factors and has been a long-term goal of governments since the first summit on the environment in 1972. Understanding and integrating the impacts of societal growth require a strong foundation of environmental knowledge. In many parts of the world, NMHSs play this role. In the future, reporting on environmental indicators and trends on the impacts of growth will assist governments make effective choices about the future.

Understanding emerging societal risks

These major global trends continue to challenge national governments, individually and collectively, to optimize the benefits and mitigate the negative consequences. Risks to, and vulnerability of, society continue to mount. Governments are becoming increasingly concerned over the health and well-being of their citizens, consequences on their cities (increasing urbanization and decreasing societal resilience) and access to clean life-essential natural resources (air, water, etc.). In addition to informed policy choices and decisions, governments are also seeking efficient means to effectively serve their people. This should have consequences on ways and means that governments choose to meet this goal, possibly even going beyond national borders. As a consequence, the outputs of an NMHS, its public weather services, must be responsive to the changing needs and requirements posed by policy problems, informing solutions but in the most effective and yet efficient way.

Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic rise in both numbers and impacts of natural hazards3. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points to the increasing likelihood of severe weather and environmental events over time. In Canada, for instance, floods have increased in number four-fold as compared to 50 years ago4. As a consequence, governments and emergency planning and management organizations will expect more from PWS programming, particularly in the areas of reassessment of hazards, early warning and improved lead time to permit a more effective response. PWS early warning systems in some parts of the world are a “one-of-a-kind” facility, permitting government agencies to leverage such capacity to serve other warning infrastructure through a multi-hazard approach.

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The growing disparity between city and rural lifestyles indicates that specialized services will be required for each. The vulnerabilities of city dwellers will be very different from those in more remote locations. While coastal communities depend on water-related hazard warnings, city dwellers may also regularly require information identifying the risks posed by environmental contaminants. Montreal, Canada, is installing specialized radar to monitor local weather systems to ensure that the city is prepared to meet flow requirements for wastewater treatment during high-impact events, while minimizing treatment costs during less eventful times. Other examples worldwide include delivery of options for travel during forecast poor air-quality days and new air- and waterborne disease forecasts linking disease with climate variables.

Furthermore, with increased environmental pressures on health and water, linkages between PWS and UN programmes such as UN-Water and those of the World Health Organization, will become more important. Human health and water availability are very much influenced by environmental factors and PWS will, in future, be expected to inform by quantifying and qualifying these linkages.

Water security continues to remain a significant issue worldwide: demand continues to increase, while droughts undermine development. Resolution of these issues is difficult as water “rights” are almost always multi-jurisdictional, requiring complex negotiation mechanisms. PWS may be able to play a significant policy role in this area through prediction of transboundary movement and systematic monitoring and reporting. It may be surprising to note that, in Canada, drought is ranked the number one disaster nationwide and the Great Lakes (the largest freshwater body in the world) are at their lowest level ever recorded.

Energy demand is also greatest in cities and options for energy generation have never been so plentiful. PWS are poised to aid in the decision- making process to ensure that the right mix of energy is generated for predicted meteorological and societal conditions. In Canada, this type of service is currently delivered through the meteorological private sector. The Canadian PWS is exploring options to ensure that appropriate services are also made available through the public sector. In many cases, PWS will be able to provide a critical service to government to support decisions regarding energy consumption and conservation policies. Surging population and corresponding energy use predicted over the next century will require development of PWS national-scale energy availability alerts or warnings.

 

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Technological change and prediction of the “spheres”

Significant strides made in science, technology and telecommunications over the last decade realized major advancement of observational methods of the atmosphere with new breadth of satellite- and Earth-based instrument sensing of the atmosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere. These observations contributed to the significant advancements in atmospheric predictability through continued performance of global and regional numerical weather prediction models.

Further scientific and technological advances in the next decade will offer even more potential benefit for society in future. Continued improvements in computational capacity will improve predictability, with even higher spatial resolution scientific environmental prediction models at global, regional and subregional levels. More interactive coupled models at the Earth’s surface (air-ocean-ice models) and aloft (troposphere-stratosphere) will result in improved predictions of changes in weather, climate, water and atmospheric chemistry. New scientific thrusts to observe, model and predict at the “Earth System” level through initiatives such as the Earth System Simulator and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems will lead to better understanding of physical, chemical and biological processes and feedbacks. PWS can serve as a primary information conduit by providing a variety of new information products and services that will inform decision-making, as well as sound policy- and law-making mechanisms at local, national and international levels, beyond its current offerings.

Technological change and service culture

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However, not to understate the importance of the benefits of scientific and computer computation enhancements over the past decade, likely the most beneficial advancement for PWS from the users’ perspective has been the World Wide Web and informatics systems, facilitating access to knowledge and information by anyone, at any time and from anywhere to anywhere, allowing for integration into user-designed decision-making processes. The Internet, a form of global “real-time newspaper” has also permitted world citizens to become acutely aware of the importance of environmental issues such as climate change and air and water pollution. It has also allowed for improved networking of scientists and other experts worldwide to advance the understanding of these issues.

Technology often outstrips the capacity of society to effectively realize the full benefit. For instance, while the Internet was only thought of about two decades ago, the potential is still being exploited through popularization of social learning and networking of Web 2.0 applications today. This is a good illustration of the forces—technology, culture and system processes—that influence service provision that apply to PWS programmes. These influences are mutually interdependent. For example, for NMHSs to adopt Web-based technologies, when citizens do not have access or understand how to use computing or Internet technologies, would not result in the expected benefit. Likewise, to connect to a “Net-ready generation” would require NMHSs to integrate information technologies and the necessary changes into their operating systems. For the future, successful PWS will require simultaneous implementation changes in technologies, systems and internal operating cultures, recognizing the evolution of user means, methods and needs that support their decision-making processes.

The onset of the digital age is already showing the golden promise of on-demand, selective access to user-specified programming and to all sorts of information integral to their decision-making. The rapid expansion of broadband communications, Internet and digital broadcast systems (TV, podcasts, Internet and radio) and the proliferation of intelligent, mobile personal information and wireless communication devices will support an on-demand (from anywhere at any time), fully interactive and integrated communication systems. This offers significant advantage for NMHSs and their PWS programmes where weather, climate and water information can be time-sensitive, such as alerts to potentially dangerous high-impact events or instant updates on the status of developing storms. However, this also requires enhanced cooperation with communication systems vendors, as well as among NMHSs, to harmonize the information content of their products and services, especially among neighbouring States.

This communications evolution will come with at least one significant challenge and one major opportunity for NMHSs. The challenge relates to being aware not only of “what” the citizens or specific clients require but also of their “service culture” or “how” these individuals or groups access information and learn.

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The challenge—service transformation

Evolving technologies are amplifying expectations on NMHSs to make more information accessible in a timely manner but also in a format and means that is amenable to their changing lifestyles and their preferred means of access. For example, not even two decades ago, newsprint, radio and television were the preferred channels to obtain weather information. When compared to today, the youngest generation of adults’ preference is for Internet methods, Web searches, mobile text messaging and social networking. NMHSs should be already considering the implications of the “Net-ready generation” by:

  • Moving from paper products to digitized information, which will improve the “reach” of PWS significantly;
  • Transiting from a few individual delivery channels to multi-channel methods offering integrated solutions, which now are including typical Web 2.0 options, such as using wikis, blogs, shared forums, feed reader and widgets;
  • Evolving from static and passive delivery methods to those that involve enhanced user engagement (interactive), push-technologies and user-customized services.

There is growing emphasis placed on the value of weather, climate and water information and predictions as it contributes significantly to the efficiencies of national economies and their global competitiveness. Timely access to relevant information is an important element of economic performance. A similar value statement can be made for societal pressures aimed at improving quality of life and the environment. Meeting the challenge, therefore, will be not only by adopting advancing technologies but also respecting and integrating the changing practice of how information and learning are being assimilated by societies. Successful implementation will ensure that NMHSs, through their public weather services, remain a respected, trusted and responsive core responsibility of their governments.

The opportunity—embedded services

The shifting orientation on the application and use of information technologies also presents an opportunity for NMHSs. The recruitment and renewal of the workforce is attracting creative and innovative employees who are active users of these evolving technologies. Channelling this technological evolution and creativity capacity will offer significant potential for generating risk-based information and prediction services that would integrate the likelihood of high impact meteorological or hydrological events with their consequences and mitigation strategies. This form of embedded product will significantly rely on alliances and partnerships that capitalize on the significant reach of PWS in the future.

Successful public weather service programmes in the future should be service outcome-focused, rather than output-focused. This considers having our outputs embedded within a broader-based product or service. Canada’s public weather service provider has developed an air quality health index which incorporates not only an air-quality forecast but also information about who would be most affected by a certain air-quality event and effective strategies to limit their exposure to health risks. This service is produced and delivered in partnership with health agencies.

Complementary to being outcome-focused, PWS need to be stakeholder-centric. There are significant differences between a stakeholder-centric and a user-centric service. The former actually orients PWS to consider a more comprehensive perspective, moving away from considering solely the “client-server” relationship. It considers all those affected by the services beyond the direct recipient. Adoption of a stakeholder-centric approach holds great promise and could greatly enhance the relevance of PWS to society.

 
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Conclusions

In conclusion, public weather services will need to adapt to changing public policy, environmental risks and new ways of doing business. Making these changes will certainly not only lead to the sustainability of public weather services over the long term, but rather should be viewed as a key means to support sustainable development goals enabling governments to make improved choices.

Key will be a successful integration of security, health and environmental issues to further the development of embedded and stakeholder-centric solutions. This has already started to take hold beyond energy resource concerns, e.g. the growing appreciation of water security.

And, finally, utilization of all that technology has to offer will be difficult without integrating the changes in its use by society. Successful public weather services will utilize the most accessible systems and will capitalize upon engagement of stakeholders, partners and especially the decision-makers of the future.

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* Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment Canada, and Permanent Representative of Canada with WMO

1 Global trends 2015, Central Intelligence Agency, US Government
2 Global trends 2005: An owner’s manual for the next decade, Michael J. Mazaar
3 EM-DAT: the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database www.em-datnet.UCL-Brussels, Belgium
4 The Canadian Disaster Database, Public Safety Canada, Government of Canada

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