By Dave Sherwood
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Amazon Web Services, a unit of Amazon.com Inc, said it will help astronomers in Chile crunch huge troves of data using its cloud computing services, a symbolically important step for the retail-to-entertainment giant as it looks to expand in Latin America.
Amazon will store data and night-sky images gleaned from telescopes in Chile's nearly cloudless Atacama desert, then offer researchers the tools to access them anywhere, said Jeffrey Kratz, General Manager for Public Sector Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Latin American, Caribbean and Canada.
"Chile has over 70 percent of telescopes researching ... the night sky, yet 83 percent of the data they cannot keep because they don't have the storage capacity at many of these sites," Kratz told Reuters.
"They were frustrated because they weren't able to maximize the amazing research that was going on."
Amazon's role as a founding member in the public-private research project, called the Chilean Data Observatory, gives it a key entry into a market where it is seeking to expand.
Amazon - which controls nearly one-third of the global cloud computing business, ahead of rivals Microsoft Corp and Google - has until recently struggled to lure public institutions in Latin America to store their data online instead of on physical machines.
At a ceremony announcing the project in Santiago on Tuesday, Chile Economy Minister Jose Ramon Valente said the country had selected Amazon to provide the infrastructure for the initiative, calling it "one of the largest centers for the study of big data in the world."
"Our objective was to create an organization that would be open to the community, and neutral, that could make the best use of the ... data that is generated in our country," he said. "We want this to be very inclusive."
Chilean officials have previously told Reuters tools developed for the astrodata project would also be applicable for a wide variety of other uses, such as tracking potential shop-lifters, fare-evaders on public transport or spotting anomalies in banking or medical datasets.
Valente said the data and tools could also be used to assist in the country's mining sector, as well as in the study of climate change.
Kratz said Amazon, which has invested "millions of dollars" in the project, would itself not have access to the data, which will remain encrypted. Access will be granted to participants selected by the non-profit Chilean Data Observatory.
The deal also comes amid speculation about where in the region the tech giant will install its next data center, which would allow local firms and government to store information on the cloud. Chile and Argentina are both vying for Amazon's investment.
Economy Minister Valente said the project bodes well for Chile's relationship with Amazon.
"This alliance with Amazon shows that Amazon believes in Chile," he said.
AWS is a lucrative and fast-growing part of Amazon's overall business. The company said in January that fourth-quarter revenue for the unit had surged 45 percent to $7.43 billion.
Kratz said the company was constantly reevaluating its options for new investments but had no further announcements.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Susan Thomas)