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MetService's forecast: Innovation

MetService's forecast: Innovation

MetService has a dual persona – a state owned enterprise with full commercial operations worldwide. It is a unique setup that keeps CIO Alistair Vickers and his team on the leading edge of business technology.

The flipside of Alistair Vickers’ business card features a rugby ball – and a reminder how MetService plays a role in the victory of the All Blacks at a final game at Eden Park.

“All Blacks strategy hangs on last-minute MetService weather briefings,” it reads. “Direction of play, kicking style, sprig length, territory or possession? Can’t claim ‘full-credit’. Honoured to be selected.”

No wonder Vickers, CIO of MetService, has a ready smile each time he hands over his business card.

A cursory look at the card also reveals another one-off – he is also CIO of MetraWeather, the offshore company of MetService.

Alistair Vickers on the leading edge of business technology as concurrent CIO at MetService and MetraWeather. (Photography: Brooke Woollett)
Alistair Vickers on the leading edge of business technology as concurrent CIO at MetService and MetraWeather. (Photography: Brooke Woollett)

Across New Zealand, MetService is the weather authority, delivering the official forecasts and warnings 24x7, 365 days a year. But overseas, it is known as MetraWeather, a major provider of innovative weather information services for a range of organisations.

Its customers vary across markets and geographies, and range from energy operators, hydropower operators, retailers and network managers, television stations, print media and mobile communications operators.

We are more like a small private company than a government agency.

Alistair Vickers, MetService

“Our forecast for New Zealand is exceedingly accurate, to the minute,” says Vickers. “We can also provide this type of forecast for absolutely anywhere in the world.”

Related: MetService is in the quintessential information business.

Balancing act

“MetService is a unique balance for being a fully commercial operation with provision of second to none public weather services,” says Vickers. “We try to be game changing – and be agile.”

He explains MetService does a lot more than meteorological services and their challenges are around supporting a global business, meeting and delivering to customer needs, managing a rapidly changing environment and controlling IT spend to maximise value to the business.

Its counterparts across the globe will have different business models, but they also compete on certain fronts. The UK meteorological office, for instance, is largely government funded but has commercial contracts as well. So MetraWeather competes in the UK weather market, as well as private weather companies, some of which are funded by venture capitalists.

In the United States, the National and Atmospheric Administration gives away its data. Therefore, any developer can take the American model and present it for free, which is why people can download many weather apps on iTunes.

Being able to cost model your investments, capex, opex, what is the return on investment, the weighted average cost of capital, are really important as the bottom layers of IT become more productised.

Alistair Vickers, MetService

The problem with this is the data is not always accurate, he says. Last Christmas, for instance, the Accuweather site predicted thunderstorms for Wellington when it was a “beautiful 35 degree sunny day” in the capital.

“Where MetService is different,” says Vickers, “is we take other people’s models, put our smarts both from our meteorologists and also from scientists, and bring these together.”

MetService is a state owned enterprise, but does not get government funding. “I can’t go to the government minister and say, can we have a supercomputer? “Everything needs to be justifiable, so we have to provide a business case if we want more investment,” he says and this proposal goes to the board.

“Everything is very, very commercial,” he says. “So in some respect, we are more like a small private company than a government agency.”

It is a model that impacts the way the information services team works across the organisation.

MetService has around 240 people across the globe, of which about 180 are based in New Zealand. Its international offices are in the United Kingdom, Sydney and Hong Kong. The service desk, which runs in three shifts, is based in Wellington. The role of the CIO and the role of technology in MetService has grown and changed quite a lot over the years, says Vickers.

“The analogy I use for my group is a town planning perspective,” he says. “The architects decide with the business whether we want roads or trains or something else and where to build; whether it is a two-lane road or a 10-lane road.

“Then the infrastructure team builds the roads, with servers and storage and networking and everything. The application support team keeps the roads open.”

Taking on the hat of an entrepreneurial CIO is a critical part of his job at the state owned enterprise. Recently, he and CEO Peter Lennox went to Europe to meet with a number of companies they are doing business with, including the BBC.

MetService CIO Alistair Vickers and CEO Peter Lennox in front of the Weatherscape screen – which it provides to television stations around the world through its offshore company MetraWeather.
MetService CIO Alistair Vickers and CEO Peter Lennox in front of the Weatherscape screen – which it provides to television stations around the world through its offshore company MetraWeather.

MetService provides weather information that can impact operations and decisions both in the corporate and consumer markets. For example, one of its subscribers is a local photographer who needs to know whether it will be a good day to schedule a photo shoot. There are also food manufacturing and consumer companies that need to know when will be the first “barbeque weekend” in summer so they can stock up on related consumables like sausages and steak.

In the pipeline with their development and product teams are several new and enhancement of products that can be supplied ‘as a service’ across the globe. One of these is Weatherscape, software package that can be used in different ways by television companies. A television station, for instance, can personalise the programme by assigning a weather presentor, as all information, including graphics, are provided by MetraWeather.

Related:How entrepreneurial IT leaders can impact revenue

These commercial services mean the IT team is also becoming “product focused”. The service desk has moved out of IT and now report to the general manager of communications. “They are in the front line of the business,” explains Vickers. “That way we have a consistent message across the public and our customers.”

“Where MetService is different is we take other people’s models, put our smarts both from our meteorologists and also from scientists, and bring these together,” says Alistair Vickers (centre), with meteorologists Ramon Oosterkamp (left) and Peter Kreft (right).
“Where MetService is different is we take other people’s models, put our smarts both from our meteorologists and also from scientists, and bring these together,” says Alistair Vickers (centre), with meteorologists Ramon Oosterkamp (left) and Peter Kreft (right).

Next: 'I was a latecomer to IT'

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