Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


How the Met Office lost millions of pounds trying to compete with the private sector

One of the arguments of this campaign is that it’s a mistake for the public sector to get into fields where it is handicapped by the nature of its structure – that is, in selling data commercially. (The public sector is ideally placed to collect and collate data: it has laws and tax-raising powers, for example. And lots of time, often.)

This week, an example of how the Met Office came unstuck in 2001 – and lost £4.5 million of our money doing it – in this week’s Technology Guardian, over the failure of WeatherXchange, a joint venture with private organisations.

Extract:

[The present Met Office chief executive Mark] Hutchinson told the Commons defence select committee on May 23 that his organisation was dominated by public-service civil servants, and will need to bring in relevant expertise in order to build its commercial activities. “We don’t have an awful lot of hard, private-sector commercial experience,” he said.

The day before, Peter Ewins, the chief executive of the Met Office from 1997 to 2004, told the committee he did not believe other participants in WeatherXchange made initial investments but had instead provided credibility and expertise. “That sounds incredibly naive and amateurish,” said Kevan Jones, a Labour MP. “If you had done that in local government, you’d have been shot.”

Ewins, who remained chairman of WeatherXchange after leaving the Met Office, says the joint-venture was hit by poor European growth in weather derivatives. But he added: “After I left the Met Office, there was in my view not the champion of that relationship that was so necessary to its success.”

And here’s the kicker:

According to [MP Kevan] Jones, “the reason why the relationship broke down was the fact that the Met Office realised how lucrative this venture was, and was selling information directly to the market, rather than going through WeatherXchange.”

Responding, Ewins said: “You have pre-empted by about 10 seconds what I was going to go on to say.”

Got that? The Met Office undermined the company it had invested in, because it could do better by selling data directly to the market. Sure, it shouldn’t have started the company. But the worrying thing is that if the company had been a success, then the Met Office would have preferred to supply that than other private-sector organisations – which would start to create a private monopoly where none existed. So in some ways, it’s a blessing that WeatherXchange failed. But really, it should never be public money involved in these ventures. Risking money in the private sector is the job of banks. Providing data is the job of the public sector. Perhaps some people will start to listen. Does anyone have Kevan Jones’s email?

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