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Google pulls out of science data project


Posted on behalf of Declan Butler

Google has at the last-minute pulled the plug on a plan to host large scientific datasets for free. The idea was to have been that Google would send three-terabyte or bigger hard drives by snail-mail to scientists interested in having their data hosted by the company. Once returned to Google, these were to have been uploaded onto its servers. As a condition of using the service, scientists would have to agree that all data was public domain, free for all to access and reuse.

Google’s stated mission “is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, but for the moment extending that mission to include scientific information seems off the table.

Over the past few months, Google had been quietly testing the service, mostly using data from NASA, including massive Hubble datasets, but also data from the Archimedes Palimpsest project.

Initially scheduled for public release around last month, Google pushed the launch date back to January 2009. Since then Google has been making economies in the face of the financial crisis, and the non-profit Google Research Datasets project was reviewed. Late Wednesday evening, a spokesperson wrote me to say that “We’ve been evaluating our resources to ensure they are used in the most effective possible way to bring maximum value to our users. Unfortunately, we’ve decided not to launch Google Research Datasets publicly, but to instead focus our efforts on other activities such as Google Scholar, our Research Programs, and publishing papers about research here at Google.”

A Google spokesperson declined to comment further other than saying “As you know, Google is a company that promotes experimentation with innovative new products and services. At the same time, we have to carefully balance that with ensuring that our resources are used in the most effective possible way to bring maximum value to our users. The Google Research Datasets service will remain active until the end of January 2009 during which time any datasets may be downloaded. For those datasets that are impractical to download, we will also happily provide interested users with a copy via hard drive shipment.”

The concept of the project was first aired at the 2007 SciFoo, a meeting organized by Nature and O’Reilly Media, a leader in publishing about computing, and hosted by Google, at its GooglePlex headquarters in Mountain View, California (see a revised version of the talk). Ars Technica gave more details of the service in an article last year.

Google Earth/Sky itself already offers access to Sloan Digital Survey and other science datasets. Ironically, speaking at this weeks annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (which Nature has been blogging), Michael Jones, chief technology officer of Google Earth, gave a talk entitled “The Spread of Scientific Knowledge From the Royal Society to Google Earth and Beyond” (see video), where he exhorted scientists to stop hoarding their raw data, and share it on the Web. Nature has made the same point in the past.

Well, it now seems one place they won’t be sharing anytime soon is on Google. Maybe on Amazon?


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