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Public data providers feel chill of competition



News that the Met Office has dropped out of the running to supply BBC forecasts is a sign of things to come

Judging by comments in the press today, few Britons are aware of the existence of a private weather forecasting industry. However, the news that the Meteorological Office has not made the shortlist for the next five-year contract to supply the BBC’s weather forecasts is a taste of things to come as the government grooms its portfolio of public data providers for privatisation.

Trade union Prospect, which represents Met Office scientists, said the decision “shows blatant disregard for decades of expertise and specialist scientific knowledge provided by the Met Office staff to deliver the accurate weather forecasts that so many businesses and people rely on”.

Such sentiments are unlikely to cut much ice. The BBC is expected to appoint a new weather forecasting company later this year. According to press reports, a leading contender is MeteoGroup, owned by the PA news agency. The Netherlands based business has been a leading player in the campaign to persuade meteorological agencies to make data available for re-use, allowing the development of a European weather forecasting industry along the lines of that in the US.

Trading fund

In theory, the Met Office has been competing in this market since becoming a government trading fund in 1996. Along with Ordnance Survey and Companies House was a high profile member of the Public Data Group, which since May this year has been under the wing of the Treasury (from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills). As such it is a prime candidate for inclusion in whatever privatisation plans are announced in the chancellor’s autumn statement.

It looks a fair commercial prospect on paper. The agency’s latest annual report shows a profit of £12.3m on a turnover of £216.6m, up 6.1% on the previous year. However, more than 80% of its revenue comes from public sector bodies and the bulk of its efforts fall into its public task: its role as the UK’s national meteorological service.

Fair and equal data

Competitor MeteoGroup traces its origins back to 1986 when one of the first European private sector weather businesses, Meteo Consult BV, was set up by a Dutch TV weather presenter.

According to its corporate autobiography: “The early days were a challenge for private sector weather businesses in Europe as the national met offices dominated all markets and access to essential meteorological data and models was severely restricted. However, Meteo Consult lobbied hard for fair and equal data access and to open up markets to the private sector. As a result the business in the Netherlands grew in both the media and B2B markets.”

In 1996 Meteo Consult became a majority shareholder in Meteo Services in Belgium (now MeteoGroup Belgium) and in 1997 a joint venture was established with the Press Association in the UK - PA WeatherCentre. In May 2005, a majority shareholding in Meteo Consult B.V was acquired by the PA Group, an international group of news, information and communications businesses which include the Press Association.

The Press Association and Meteo Consult had worked together since 1997 in a successful joint venture in the UK, PA WeatherCentre Ltd, now MeteoGroup UK, combining the meteorological skills of Meteo Consult with the packaging and delivery skills of the Press Association. In September 2006, the business was re-branded as MeteoGroup.

It is watching the future of the UK Met Office with interest.

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