Environment Canada opens up to open source

Environment Canada is using an open source model for its Model of the Environment and Temperature of Roads (METRo) forecasting system, in an effort to help provide the community of meteorologists and road maintainers with accurate forecasting software.

METRo 3, the newest iteration of software released last year, inputs atmospheric forecasts, road composition and observations from road weather stations to produce a local road forecast ranging from up to a 48-hour period. The system, designed for winter road forecasting, was created in the python programming language and can perform its forecasts on a standard desktop in less than two seconds.

“By having a temperature and condition for roads, you can choose what type of road salt you should use, the quantities you should use and, most importantly, when you should use it,” Miguel Tremblay, physicist and METRo developer, said.

“If you know that it can help you plan out your human resources. For example, the right road salt at the right moment, decreases the accident rate, improves the safety of the Canadian population, and decreases traffic jams which can lead to improved air quality.”

The system, which had been used on an operational basis from 1999 to 2005 in Ontario and New Brunswick, has recently been freely distributed by Environment Canada under General Public Licence (GPL).

During last week’s Free Software and Open Source Symposium (FSOSS) 2007, held at Seneca College’s York University Campus in Toronto, Tremblay said the open source model will allow many in the metrological community in Canada and abroad to analyze and modify the code, ultimately leading to a better system.

To facilitate this, he also said METRo is the first such project to use a wiki, which allows users to easily create, edit and collaborate on the project. The Government of Canada’s position on open source software is favorable, as long as it supports service delivery to Canadians, the internal operations of government, and adopts business-driven standards in its integration with IT infrastructure and systems.

“Most countries have a model for doing this, but nobody wants to give it away,” Tremblay said. “For us, if we didn’t make this an open source the project would have certainly died by now. We needed something with the potential to develop the community and improve the project.”

Tremblay said that the more people who use METRo and improve on its code and documentation, the better Canadians will be for safe and secure winter roads. According to Tremblay, one potential contributing country from overseas, Austria, has already expressed interest in the METRo project.

“We hope that they can become another contributor and give us their perspectives on road forecasting,” Tremblay said. “Plus, having other countries look at this work has forced us to have better documentation. We don’t want to be embarrassed for outside parties to see the code.”

Tremblay cited some of the already apparent benefits from the switch to open source, which included over 146 commitments to the code, seven bug fixes, and active collaborators outside Environment Canada in the academic and private sectors.

For the future, Environment Canada hopes to continue simplifying the code on the project to make it easier to install for outside parties. The department is also looking at using the METRo model for other surfaces such as snow, urban and forest areas.

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