How weather data became open data

Posted to Data Sources  |  Nathan Yau

Weather in the private sector is over a $1.5 billion industry, and it’s largely because of the government’s open weather data. You can find what the weather is just about anywhere with just a few clicks of the mouse. It wasn’t always like that though. Clay Johnson, former director of Sunlight Labs, describes the history of open weather data, starting with Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s.

Thomas Jefferson was a huge weather fan— he took regular weather observations, and even noted it was 76 degrees while penning the Declaration of Independence. He even began to build a regional volunteer weather network in Virginia though it was short-lived due to the revolutionary war.

Another volunteer network picked up a few decades later, but it wasn’t until a couple of professors from Ohio convinced Congress that weather was the cause of millions of dollars of property damage and thousands of casualties that things started to get serious.

Finally, a couple of decades later, in 1889, president Benjamin Harrison makes a request to Congress.

A couple decades of military measurement went by before president Benjamin Harrison’s first annual address where he requested that Congress move the weather service into a civilian led Department of Agriculture. Big industries began demanding the data. Transportation and railroad companies — alongside riverboat operators demanded access to the data of the weather Bureau. A few years later, anything that could be affected by weather was demanding access to and was dependent upon weather data from the National Weather Service.

Vóila. A $1.5 billion industry is born. It took next to forever, but hey, it finally happened.

[via @sgillies]

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