GAO-10-799 September 2010 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites:
Improvements Needed in Continuity Planning and Involvement of Key Users

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NOAA's Efforts to Involve External GOES Data Users, Prioritize Their Data Needs, and Communicate Program Status Have Shortfalls

NOAA has identified key GOES data users and involved internal users in defining and prioritizing the GOES-R program requirements, but lacks a comprehensive approach for eliciting and prioritizing the satellite data needs of external users. Further, while NOAA has taken steps to communicate program status and changes to all GOES data users, important changes to currently available GOES data products have not been adequately communicated to external users. Until these weaknesses are addressed, NOAA faces the increased risk that its satellite acquisitions may not meet the needs of key GOES data users.

Key GOES Data Users Have Been Identified, but Efforts to Involve Other Federal Agencies and Prioritize Their Data Needs Are Not Sufficient

Leading organizations routinely identify relevant operational users and involve these users in key program activities, including requirements definition.[14] Moreover, best practices call for eliciting the needs of operational users and developing these needs into prioritized requirements. Prioritized requirements should serve as the basis for determining project scope and can help to ensure that requirements critical to key users are addressed quickly.

Key GOES data users can be categorized into three tiers. The first tier includes internal NOAA users that depend on GOES data for their primary mission, such as NWS. The second tier includes other federal agencies that depend on GOES data for their primary mission, such as the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration. The third tier includes all other users that receive GOES data, including private industry and universities. See table 9 below for descriptions and examples of each tier of GOES data users.

Table 9: Key GOES Data Users
Tier Description Examples
1 NOAA users who depend on GOES data for their primary mission
  • NWS
  • NESDIS
  • Other NOAA offices (e.g., NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations, NOAA Ocean Service, etc.)
2 Other federal agencies that depend on GOES data for their primary mission
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of the Interior
  • Federal Aviation Administration
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
3 All other users who receive GOES data
  • Universities
  • Research institutions
  • Private industry
  • News media
  • Broadcasters
  • General public

In formulating the GOES-R program, NOAA primarily involved internal NOAA users (tier 1) in requirements definition activities, but did receive input from one other federal agency, the Department of Defense. Beginning in 1998, NOAA collected high-level system requirements from NWS. Over the next few years, NOAA continued to collect and refine these requirements by including input from other NOAA offices, including NESDIS, NOAA Ocean Service, NOAA Research, NOAA Fisheries, and NOAA Marine and Aviation Operations. Also, in February 2003, the Department of Commerce requested that the Department of Defense provide a consolidated list of its environmental information needs, including those data needs that could be met by geostationary satellites. This input, combined with that of NOAA's offices, served as the basis for the 2004 GOES-R Program Requirements Document, which represented a preliminary set of GOES-R requirements.

In June 2007, prior to entering the development phase of the GOES-R program lifecycle, the Deputy Undersecretary for Commerce Oceans and Atmosphere approved a baseline set of prioritized GOES-R requirements (known as the Level 1 Requirements).[15] Efforts to prioritize the Level 1 Requirements were led by a working group of representatives from various NOAA organizations. This working group categorized the requirements into four priority levels according to the importance of each requirement to NOAA, as well as the requirements contribution to the GOES-R series.

However, other than the Department of Defense's input into the 2004 version of the requirements, external users that rely on GOES data were not adequately involved in the GOES-R requirements definition or prioritization process. According to NOAA officials, input to the requirements from other federal agencies (tier 2) and other interested users (tier 3) was collected via casual conversations between NOAA offices and these users, as well as during GOES User Conferences, which were held to educate and obtain input from prospective GOES-R users. While these methods are reasonable for eliciting input from tier 3 users, federal agencies that rely on GOES data to meet unique mission requirements warrant documented input to the GOES-R requirements. For example, the U.S. Forest Service relies on GOES for fire monitoring and detection capabilities to sustain an estimated 193 million acres of the nation's forests and grasslands. According to U.S. Forest Service officials, the lack of a structured process for their agency to provide input into the requirements definition process has made it difficult to ensure that its requirements have been and will be implemented.

Further, NOAA did not account for the priority data needs of other federal users in prioritizing the Level 1 requirements. As previously mentioned, the priorities of the requirements were established by the GOES-R requirements working group. However, this group only includes membership from NOAA offices, such as NWS and NESDIS, and does not include membership from other federal agencies. According to GOES-R program officials, the Level 1 Requirements are intended to reflect the priorities of NOAA users, primarily those of NWS, and the assumption is that other users will adapt to the data provided by NOAA. However, given the unique missions of other federal agencies and their reliance on GOES data to meet their missions, input into the prioritization of GOES-R requirements is critical to ensure that GOES-R will meet the needs of their organizations.

The lack of involvement by federal agencies in GOES-R requirements definition and prioritization is due to weaknesses in NOAA's processes for defining and prioritizing satellite data requirements. Specifically, the lack of a structured process for eliciting the data needs of key operational users inhibits NOAA's ability to produce prioritized requirements that reflect the needs of other federal agencies that depend on these satellites. Without improvements in these processes, NOAA's satellite acquisitions may not fully meet the needs of important GOES data users.

Back to topNOAA Has Not Effectively Communicated with Other Federal Agencies

While NOAA has taken steps to communicate program status and changes to internal and external GOES data users, important changes to currently available GOES data products have not been communicated to key external users. According to industry best practices, programs should regularly communicate program status to relevant operational users.[16] Moreover, best practices call for identifying and documenting deviations from plans and communicating significant issues to relevant operational users.

NOAA has taken steps to communicate program status and changes to GOES data users. For example, the GOES-R requirements working group was established to identify and represent NOAA user requirements and serves as a forum for communication of GOES-R requirements status and changes with internal NOAA users. Another initiative, known as the GOES-R Proving Ground, engages the NWS forecast and warning community in preoperational demonstrations of selected capabilities anticipated from GOES-R. Through this program, NWS users are given the ability to test and evaluate expected GOES-R capabilities, such as lightning detection, before the satellites are operational. Lastly, GOES User Conferences are held to educate and obtain input from any prospective GOES users, including other agencies, universities, and industry.

However, the GOES-R program has undergone significant changes over the course of its acquisition lifecycle, and these changes have not been communicated to GOES data users outside of NOAA. As previously mentioned, in 2007, program officials removed requirements from the baseline program to treat them as a contract option that could be exercised if funds allow (known as Option 2). These changes resulted in a baseline program of 34 satellite data products and 31 Option 2 products. However, NOAA did not communicate the removal of these products to external federal agencies. In addition, 9 Option 2 products are currently available to GOES data users, which means that users may lose access to these products if the contract option is not exercised. These 9 products are critical to measuring cloud properties, infrared radiation, and sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. However, NOAA did not inform external federal agencies about the potential loss of these products. See figure 7 for a description of the 9 currently available products removed from the GOES-R program baseline.

Figure 7: Nine Current Satellite Products Removed from the GOES-R Program Baseline
Figure 7: Nine Current Satellite Products Removed from the GOES-R Program Baseline

According to GOES-R program officials, the decision to make these products part of the contract option was based on NOAA's input and was approved by the requirements working group. However, key GOES data users at other federal agencies that currently rely on these products have not been involved in, nor told of, these changes. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses cloud-based products (such as cloud liquid water) to develop weather forecasts used by farmers and radiation-based products (such as upward longwave radiation) for streamflow simulation modeling. In addition, the Department of Defense relies on the cloud-based products (such as cloud type and cloud heights) as input into weather prediction models for forecasting of high-altitude winds, which are used to navigate ships and planes.

If the contract option is not exercised, these agencies will not have access to these GOES data products that they currently utilize. If this occurs, GOES-R program officials stated that GOES data users may be able to get these products via the Internet from NESDIS, but added that the details for this alternative have not been determined because the program expects to receive approval from NESDIS to exercise this contract option by December 2010. Given that these products are currently available to GOES data users, any significant changes to these products should be communicated to these users to ensure that they have sufficient time to implement workarounds or determine other sources for the data. Without communicating significant changes, other federal agencies may lose access to critical data products needed to meet mission requirements.

[14]GAO, Information Technology Investment Management: A Framework for Assessing and Improving process Maturity, GAO-04-394G (Washington, D.C.: March 2004); and Software Engineering Institute, Capability Maturity Model@ Integration for Acquisition, Version 1.2, CMU/SEI-2007-TR-017 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: November 2007).

[15]The GOES-R Level 1 requirements were later updated in July 2008, December 2008, and August 2009.

[16]Software Engineering Institute, Capability Maturity Model@ Integration for Acquisition, Version 1.2, CMU/SEI-2007-TR-017 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: November 2007).

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