Is a lack of competition affecting innovation in operational river forecasting?
Contributed by Tom Pagano, a HEPEX guest columnist for 2014
The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and do not express the views or opinions of his employer or the Australian Government.
I (with my co-authors) recently submitted a paper on the “Challenges of Operational River Forecasting”, which discussed institutional conservatism as a result of perceived liability associated with public forecasts. The paper postulated that if forecasters are concerned about liability, they will favor standard operating procedures over innovative – but experimental – techniques that are not “proven”. This conservatism will stymie progress and reduce opportunities to improve accuracy.
We asked “How can scientists field-test experimental techniques under the supervision and on the terms of operational agencies, yet avoid the perception of competition with national services?”
One reviewer countered that competition with a national hydrologic service is to be encouraged, not avoided. The reviewer suggested that the national agencies’ “monopoly” on hydrologic forecasting resulted in less innovation.
Taking the reviewer’s point: is there a monopoly? Why? Is the monopoly having a negative effect on innovation? If so, what can be done?
In meteorology and climatology, there is vibrant competition between agencies, academics and private sector producers. Currently, in developing its El Nino forecasts, the US Climate Prediction Center considers 23 models, from countries including Japan, France and South Korea. Model guidance is open and free and there is a strong culture of forecast verification. Weather forecasting agencies closely track their models’ performance against those of their competitors on nearly a daily basis. Meteorologists sometimes complain that there is too much innovation; that the models are updated so frequently that it is difficult to understand the biases of any given version of the model.
The equivalent for operational hydrology is practically unthinkable at present. The physics of some widely used rainfall-runoff models nearly pre-date the widespread use of computers. Operational agencies typically rely on a single in-house model and the focus is region-specific, not international. Is the lack of competition in hydrologic forecasting in some way inevitable (e.g. a natural monopoly due to the inherent “local-ness” of hydrology or the specialized needs of users)? Or is it a cultural factor that can be overcome?
In economic theory, there are many disadvantages to monopolies, including low incentives to increase productivity or innovate, reduced quality of products and services and reduced consumer choice. However, monopolies may be economically desirable where it is not practical to have many providers of the same product (e.g. it is a waste of resources to have two lighthouses at a single spot).
In operational hydrology, the desirability of a single source of information may be to avoid public confusion from multiple, conflicting, warnings. Agencies often distinguish guidance (automated model output), from forecasts (general predictions which may have commercial value, such as for optimizing hydropower generation), and from warnings (that indicate imminent danger to lives and property).
While few public agencies would resist the private production of forecasts (and many water managers employ their own hydrologists, either in-house or under contract e.g. Bonneville Power, Snowy Hydro, Salt River Project) there is agency concern about the liability associated with published warnings and the potential to confuse unofficial forecasts with official warnings. Social scientists have shown that recipients of warnings often need to confirm the message before they are likely to take action. If the user finds inconsistent warnings, they may be less likely to act. Therefore, warnings are more effective when a single authority distributes the same message through multiple channels.
Between emergency warnings and closed private forecasts there is a “grey zone” that includes researchers engaged in real-time demonstration projects of new forecasting techniques. For example, the University of Washington makes freely available real-time runoff forecasts for the continental US, and the University of Oklahoma/NASA provide the same globally. In contrast, the European Flood Awareness System (EFAS) and its global equivalent (GloFAS) are trans-national systems but the forecasts are password-protected so as not to interfere with national hydrologic services.
There are benefits to these experimental systems. Monitoring real-time products can inspire new research that improves techniques, and allows the public to see the results of its investment in science. Demonstration of technologies in realistic conditions can help convince agency forecasters that new technologies are ready for adoption. On the other hand, there is concern that poor quality non-agency unofficial forecasts would tarnish the reputation of forecasts in general, damaging the agency brand and credibility.
What do you think? Is there a hydrologic forecasting monopoly in your country? Have you had experiences with unofficial forecasts interfering with warnings (in hydrology or otherwise, e.g. earthquakes, typhoons)? How does the current culture of competition in hydrology affect your work? How would you improve the current system? Please comment below!