The Great Dropbox Space Race

Back on 15 October 2012 the Dropbox blog announced The Great Dropbox Space Race!. The post described how:

Space Race is a chance for you to support your school and compete against other schools for eternal glory (by eternal glory we mean up to 25 GB of free Dropbox space for two years).

Everyone who signed up with an institutional email address for a bona fide educational institution received a minimum of 3 Gb storage for 2 years. Additional storage up to 25 Gb for 2 years was available based on the numbers of people who have signed up from the institution.

The space race is now over. The leader table shows the top ten institutions which have gained the largest amount of free disk space in the Cloud for members of the institution.

No. Institution Number of
“Space Racers”
1 University College London   4,020 10,977
2 University of Cambridge   4,129 10,810
3 University of Oxford   3,999   9,817
4 Imperial College London   3,566   9,284
5 University of Edinburgh   2,545   6,662
6 University of Southampton   2,515   6,429
7 University of Manchester   2,025   6,224
8 University of Nottingham   2,208   6,016
9 Open University   1,503   4,431
10 University of Warwick   1,684   4,325
TOTAL 28,194

There is also a table for the top 100 institutions, which goes down as far as Dartington College of Arts which has 134 “space racers” with a total of 428 points.

Note, incidentally, that the numbers of points aren’t directly related to the numbers of users as additional points can be scored in other ways, including reading the getting started manual!


Tweet from PlymouthI have to admit that I am a fan of Dropbox. Its ease-of-use makes the shipping of files across my desktop computers and mobile devices trivial. I was therefore hopeful that there would be significant take-up of the service across the University of Bath, which would increase my storage capacity. However after the closure of the space race the University was only in 26th place. Perhaps we should have emulated the approach taken at the University of Portsmouth and been more pro-active in encouraging take-up of the offer.

The global league table appears surprising, with no UK institutions and only 21 US institution in the top ten. The top UK institution, UCL, is in 68th position in the global table.

No. Country Institution Number of
“Space Racers”
1 Singapore National University of Singapore   20,406 42,354
2 Taiwan National Taiwan University   16,485 38,044
3 Italy Politecnico di Milano   14,359 32,017
4 Singapore Nanyang Technological University   14,875 31,355
5 Mexico Tecnológico de Monterrey   13,235 30,550
6 Netherlands Delft University of Technology   13,226 30,511
7 Brazil Universidade de São Paulo   13,469 28,307
8 USA University of California Berkeley   12,126 28,214
9 Ukraine Sumy State University     7,303 27,007
10 Germany Rheinisch Westfalische Technische Hochschule Aachen   10,038 25,777
TOTAL 135,522

What might the apparent low take-up of this offer tell us? It may be that other institutions around the world have been pro-active in encouraging take-up of the service. Alternatively it may simply be that institutions currently provide sufficient disk space for their staff and students. Alternatively it may be that institutions do not want their staff and students to make use of cloud-based storage services due to concerns regarding security, privacy and data protection.

These are legitimate issues, although when I hear people say “We can’t use Dropbox – it’s based in the US” I assume they are referring to data protection legislation. However there seems to be a lack of awareness of the Safe Harbor Agreement (a streamlined process for US companies to comply with the EU’s Directive 95/46/EC on the protection of personal data) and Dropbox’s announcement on 14 February 2012 that they had signed up to the Safe Harbor Agreement.

But what is being lost by not using such services? The 28,194 users of the top ten UK institutions are being provided with a minimum of 82.6 Terrabytes (according to this conversion table) or up to 688 Terrabytes if they each receive the maximum allowance of 25 Gb. According to a Wikipedia page which provide a List of Storage hierarchy media with costs the disk storage provided by a reliable cloud service with cost $140 per Terrabye per month. If each of the 28,194 users of the top ten UK institutions used the maximum of 25Gb allowable storage the commercial cost of this would appear to be $11,564 per month, or $277,536 over the two years for which the free deal is available.


I’ll be the first to admit that my back-of-envelop calculations are likely to be flawed. Pat Parslow suggested I take a look at Amazon’s calculator to provide a sanity check. I would therefore invite others to provide feedback on the estimates of the disk storage which Dropbox are offering and do the sums of the costs in providing similar disk storage over two years within the institution based on the many thousands of users listed in the top 100 UK institutions who have signed up to the Dropbox offer.

But in addition to the financial aspects, even if the service appears to be more popular outside the UK and US, the numbers of people who have subscribed to the service suggests that there will be a need to provide education on best practices for use of the service, including highlighting the risks of using the service.If you are a researcher I would suggest you do not allow sensitive research data to be hosted on services hosted in the US, even if the company hosted the data has signed up to the Safe Harbor Agreement.

But if a key aspect regarding use of Dropbox relates to digital literacy and risk assessment, might there be a need to ask whether the popularity of Dropbox in countries such as Taiwan and Singapore suggests that the company might be well-placed to carry out espionage on research activities in these countries? Might Dropbox be a cost-effective way of the US intelligence services to monitor activities in universities around the world? Or am I being paranoid?

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