The UK Met Office and ‘PR Spin’

It’s amazing the sorts of things that inspire me to blog. I have had a number of conversations and events lately that I ought to have blogged, but have not dedicated the time. But today I’m inspired to blog because, to be frank, I’m irritated.

Today the UK Met Office accused both mainstream media and its own press office of bias and spin as they redefined their own predictions for the UK summer period. Forecasters interviewed on BBC radio and television today said that the commentary surrounding their 30 April long term forecast for the British summer was exaggerated and misleading and that their forecasts were not for a ‘heatwave’ summer. However, when you look at the presentation delivered by the Chief Meterologist at the Met office, the press release delivered by the Met Office itself and the media reports from 30 April seem to contain no information that was not explicitly stated in the forecasters’ report.

This isn’t a case of PR or media spin. It is simply a case of the Met Office getting it wrong. Perhaps more crucially, it is a case of the senior forecasters getting their long term predictions rather badly incorrect for the third year running.

In real terms of course, this may be deemed an ‘acceptable aberration’ in long term forecasting, which takes decades of data – rather than individual years – into account.

But whilst the forecasts have been incorrect, senior forecasters are using the ‘media/PR spin’ excuse rather than opening up the climate data to climate enthusiasts who might just do a better job at long range forecasting than the senior forecasters themselves. When I have challenged Met Office staff on this subject previously, the usual line is that the UK’s long term climate data from all stations has a value and the Met office are trying to repackage that data – to sell it for profit.

I think this is what irritates me most. This is public data, collected at the expense of the UK tax payer – much like the Ordnance Survey – and should be made available for free, under a creative commons licence which allows the Met Office to republish or make use of any findings that users deliver in their own experimentation with the data. The value lies not in the data itself, but in the modelling and mashing together of that data to generate new insights and knowledge. And given the poor record of Met Office accuracy in long term predictions, perhaps if they opened up their data to a wider audience, new models could be built which would generate more accurate long term predictions.

The Bureau of Meterology in Australia has made ALL of its climate data available for free to its users and in multiple formats. And it has some of the best mapping of climate I’ve ever seen. Further, I have come across some great examples of applications based on Bureau and other sources of climate and weather data – including a great mapping and snow prediction site I’ve been using for well over a decade.

Rather than blaming journalists and PR officials, who ultimately make use of the materials provided by the forecasters, the Met Office forecasters and climate scientists would do well to learn from the precedent set by Australia’s Bureau of Meterology and to inspire greater understanding of climate both among forecasters and in the broader community. And instead of treating data as a revenue source, it would be more helpful in they considered their ‘expertise’ (value added to the raw data) as being a more useful revenue source.

And let’s face it: if the expertise isn’t there, let’s move the current crew aside and replace them with people who are more effective forecasters.

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