The decision to use commercial Cloud services by government agencies that generate massive volumes of data from earth-observing satellites, sensor networks and genomics research could restrict data access for some key users, warn researchers.
Much of such data is useful to commercial and academic institutions which can now usually access this publicly-generated data from agency servers at no charge.
But as the volume of data continues to expand, many agencies are considering the use of commercial cloud services to help store and make it available to users.
While agencies may have different strategies, these new partnerships could result in user fees levied on downloads and analyses performed on the data while it remains in the Cloud.
"Under the current system, free and open government data is used by scientists to conduct research, by entrepreneurs to create new businesses, and by citizens and other organisations to promote government transparency," said Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor in Georgia Institute of Technology.
"If users must pay fees to download or analyze the data, this will decrease the ability of these users to access and work with data.
"Past experience suggests that the impact of this decrease in data use could be large - both for individual users and for society as a whole," she said in a policy forum article published in the journal Science.
Moving data to commercial cloud systems would likely provide broader access and more efficient analysis options, but Borowitz cautioned those advantages could be offset by the cost, particularly for organisations with small budgets.
"Agencies risk losing some of the benefits of this transition by not budgeting for the costs associated with data downloads and analysis, up to a reasonable level," Borowitz noted.
Many who would be interested in using the data may not be able to pay the associated fees. Researchers, non-profit organisations and others who do not directly profit from the use of this data are most likely to be affected.
Borowitz said most agencies have not made final decisions about their Cloud-based programmes so there should be adequate time to work through these issues.
Before Landsat data -- satellite imagery of Earth -- was made freely available in 2008, no more than 25,000 images a year were purchased from the collection.
"Within a few years of implementing the free and open data policy, the (US) government was distributing 250,000 images a month," she said.
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