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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    FetchClimate—harnessing the cloud to find and share environmental data

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    Scientists around the world are striving tirelessly to monitor and model the environment—to understand the intricate workings of our ecosystem—so that policymakers can make informed decisions that lead to a sustainable future for “spaceship Earth.” This research involves using the thousands of available environmental datasets, on everything from agriculture and biodiversity to climate and the oceans. But finding, browsing, choosing, and downloading the right data can be ridiculously hard, even for the experts.

    What if finding environmental data were as simple as clicking on a map?

    Draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds
    Draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds

    Enter FetchClimate, a tool that makes locating environmental information as easy as searching for a hotel or coffee shop online. Just draw a box around the geographic area you’re interested in, select the environmental information you want, and view the data on Bing Maps within seconds. What used to take researchers hours, days, or even weeks can now be done very quickly—by anyone. When possible, FetchClimate calculates data uncertainty, so you know how reliable the information is, and the tool allows you to specify precisely the size of the area and the period of time for your query.

    FetchClimate runs in the cloud, on Microsoft Azure, meaning there is no physical limit on how much information can be added. You can not only look at historical climate data but also peer into the future, as we have included forecast data from the latest climate simulation experiments. For example, you can see what the predicted temperature or precipitation in your area will be in 2050.

    Visualization of year-to-year precipitation averages in southern Asia
    Visualization of year-to-year precipitation averages in southern Asia

    The Computational Ecology and Environmental Science group in Microsoft Research has spent several years developing FetchClimate, working with Moscow State University, which provided software development, and the DigiLab at the London College of Communication, which designed an interface that makes finding and understanding environmental information stress-free. So we’re excited to be releasing FetchClimate—in three different ways—for anyone to use for research, study, or just to satisfy their curiosity about our planet.

    • First, anyone can access our own FetchClimate service via a web explorer, which features a number of useful climatological layers, including temperature, precipitation, and sea depth. (If you would like to make your information and data easily available within our service, please contact us. We are interested in augmenting our current climate and environmental data with socio-economic and health information—or any other global information best viewed on a map.)
    • Second, you can access the same service via an API, from inside a program written in any of several languages, including .NET, R, and Python.
    • And third, we’re releasing a deployment package so that the more technically savvy of you can set up your own FetchClimate-powered service to make your data available to your colleagues, and to the wider world, via the same web explorer that runs over our own service. We’ll soon be open sourcing that explorer portion of the deployment, so you can customize or skin it how you like (all we ask is that you acknowledge that the service is powered by FetchClimate).

    The deployment package will be attractive to individuals, research teams, national laboratories, and international collaborations who are used to dealing with geographical data and are keen to share it with colleagues and the outside world in a more dynamic way. For example, Ireland’s Marine Institute has created the Irish Digital Ocean–SMART Marine Research Platform to stimulate collaborative research across the marine sector. As Eoin O’Grady, Information Services & Development Manager at the Marine Institute, explains, “FetchClimate greatly simplifies access to scientific data, promoting reuse. We see it as an excellent way to share Irish marine research data, part of the Irish Digital Ocean, with a broad range of users in the marine community, to support research and innovation and as input into public information services."

    In addition, we are currently sponsoring a special Climate Data Initiative that offers grants of Microsoft Azure resources to help early adopters set up their own FetchClimate-powered services. Using the deployment package, you will be able to implement your own instance of FetchClimate, including your datasets and a web front end that is customized for your own site—and we’ll provide the space on Azure! If you would like to pursue this, please submit a proposal by June 15, 2014. We will be selecting 40 awardees from among these proposals.

    We created FetchClimate as a way to turn data into actionable information, and to make that information easily available to the world. There are some exciting features that we haven’t discussed here (hint: what if you could upload a model, not just data?), and FetchClimate is just one of several exciting tools for environmental science that we are developing. All of these tools illustrate how, with a bit of imagination, we can begin to deliver research-as-a-service on Microsoft Azure. We hope these tools will help scientists, policymakers, and the public become more informed and better equipped to take care of our planet.

    Kenji Takeda, Solutions Architect and Technical Manager, Microsoft Research

    Kristin Tolle, Director of Environmental Science Infrastructure Development, Microsoft Research

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Inspiring female hackers in Brazil

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    Some people find the push to excel from within themselves—no external motivators necessary. Professor Rosiane de Freitas is one such woman, constantly looking for a challenge, continually pushing herself to the limit. After earning her PhD in systems engineering and computing from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, she joined the Institute of Computing of the Federal University of Amazonas (ICOMP/UFAM), where she teaches and conducts research in combinatorial optimization and graph theory.

    On top of the rigors of her academic life, Rosiane is an avid diver, hiker, and, mountaineer, as adept with an ice axe as she is with an algorithm.On top of the rigors of her academic life, Rosiane is an avid diver, hiker, and, mountaineer, as adept with an ice axe as she is with an algorithm. In fact, she is an active member of Women on the Mountain, an organization of female Brazilian mountain climbers, and the mountains she has scaled include Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas!

    When she isn’t climbing Andean mountains, Rosiane is busy conquering virtual ones. She is passionate about the potential of computer science and technology to empower results that cut across disciplines and can have an immense, beneficial impact on society. Wanting her students to understand the endless possibilities and opportunities of technology, Rosiane leads both the Amazon State Informatics Olympics and Programming Marathon. Because of her desire to increase the number of women in computer science programs, she made sure that UFAM was the first Brazilian university to take part in last year’s inaugural International Women’s Hackathon, mentoring a group of girls who participated in the event. It was great for the girls—and even better for the school, since it sparked discussions about the importance of gender diversity in technology careers. This year, Rosiane has inspired other female students to participate in the International Women’s Hackathon 2014.

    Please read on for a firsthand account of Rosiane’s experience.

    —Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

     

    Mommy's BeneFITIt was an interesting and inspiring experience to participate in the First International Women’s Hackathon in 2013. We were the only site in Brazil to field a team of young female university students. Ludymila, Mariane, Bruna, and Ingrid, undergraduate students in computer science and computer engineering at the Institute of Computing of the Federal University of Amazonas (ICOMP/UFAM), developed Mommy's BeneFIT: a mobile application aimed at keeping women physically fit during pregnancy.

    Although it wasn’t easy to organize a competition of this magnitude, the assistance of people from Microsoft Research—especially Rane Johnson and Juliana Salles—and the support of colleagues at ICOMP/UFAM and such partner institutions as INdT-Manaus simplified the task. As did the strong interest and high motivation of the young women, who had to dedicate time to the competition amidst the demands of exams, other science projects, and a heavy class load. In addition, they had only limited experience with the development platform used in the competition.

    Computer science and computer engineering undergrads at ICOMP/UFAM—Ingrid, Ludymila, Bruna, and Mariane—developed a mobile application to help women stay physically fit during pregnancy

    Computer science and computer engineering undergrads at ICOMP/UFAM—Ingrid, Ludymila, Bruna, and Mariane—developed a mobile application to help women stay physically fit during pregnancy.

    These intrepid young women shrugged off the obstacles, learning to manage their time and develop mobile apps for Windows Phone, identifying a suitable target app (one that was either unavailable on the market or whose current solution could be improved), learning about the target market, developing a functional app and testing it with users, and creating a promotional video that highlighted the best features of their solution. Thus, they played the roles of software engineers, software analysts, user experience designers, graphics designers, programmers, and marketing designers.

    ICOMP/UFAM team members work on developing their mobile app.As Ludymila observed, "It was a lot of work for three months, but it really helped us grow as professionals and gave us a wider view of our field of work. It was useful in making some personal decisions about which field to specialize in for the future." The example of these four women has inspired other female students to sign up for this year’s event, hoping to repeat the success of their pioneering colleagues. We teachers have also been motivated, gaining an even deeper commitment to participation in the upcoming International Women’s Hackathon 2014!

    —Rosiane de Freitas, Professor of Computer Science, UFAM

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  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    WWT brings astronomy to life for children of all ages

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    The night sky holds a special fascination for children worldwide. They gaze at the moon and stars shining overhead, and wonder what they are and how they got there. This natural curiosity is dampened, however, for children who live in urban areas, where air and light pollution dim the celestial show. With only a pale version of the night sky visible to them, their natural fascination with the heavens can wane, their attention turning to the brighter displays of video games. And while we have nothing against video games, we at Microsoft Research are pleased to offer youngsters the chance to be captivated again by the stories written on the canvas of the sky. Thanks to Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope (WWT), anyone can see the night sky in all its glory and be enraptured by endlessly fascinating tours of the heavens.

    WorldWide Telescope offers youngsters the chance to observe the night sky and tour the universe
    WorldWide Telescope offers youngsters the chance to observe the night sky and
    tour the universe

    Last year, we saw how WWT can bring the excitement of astronomy to Asian schoolchildren when Microsoft Research helped install a WWT-driven planetarium at the Shixinlu primary school in China. This installation enables students not only to see and study the stars and the universe in an immersive planetarium setting, but it also allows them to create their own tours of the heavens and have them displayed on the planetarium dome. To give youngsters even more opportunities to explore the mysteries of the universe with WWT, Microsoft Research Asia has provided WWT training for Chinese teachers since 2010. These teachers bring what they have learned back to the classroom, setting up interactive, multimedia courses that use WWT to teach about the stars and planets in a most engaging way.

    In 2013, Microsoft Research Asia helped introduce Japanese children and parents to the wonders of the stars through two WWT family events at Miraikan, Japan’s national science museum, located in Tokyo. Each event hosted 10 families and were treated to an event composed of three parts.

    The first part of the event taught the children and parents how to use the WWT program on Windows 8-based laptops. The youngsters rapidly mastered the software, easily completing a challenge to find the constellation representative of their birth month and identify its brightest star.

    Participants in the event at Miraikan viewed an original WWT tour.
    Participants in the event at Miraikan viewed an original WWT tour.

    During the event’s second act, the families were treated to an original WWT tour that had been converted to play in Miraikan’s unique three-screen, stereoscopic theater. Lasting 20 minutes, the tour told two stories: the journey of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft from Earth to Neptune past Jupiter and Saturn, and the development of the telescope, from early devices like Galileo’s refracting telescope to such technological marvels as the Palomar Observatory, Gemini Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope. The children and adults alike were captivated not only by the content, but also by the ability of WWT to provide such educational and motivational resources. Many of the youngsters were eager to try their hand at creating WWT tours of their own!

    The third part of the event took place on the roof of the Miraikan building, where six optical telescopes had been set up for viewing Jupiter or Saturn around 7:00 P.M. Unfortunately, during the first event the sky in Tokyo was too cloudy for observations. Children at the second event were luckier and got good views of the planets, which reinforced their growing interest in learning more about the cosmos. In fact, participants at both events were excited by astronomy and eager to install WWT on their home computers. The events clearly demonstrated the potential of WWT to inspire Japanese schoolchildren (and their parents) to study the night sky.

    WWT has the potential to inspire children, as well as adults, to study the night sky.The events also demonstrate our commitment to share high quality research results, such as WWT, with Asian education systems. Tim Pan, University Relations Director of Microsoft Research Asia, reinforces this message, stressing that “Microsoft Research Asia has always endeavored to bring science to the general public. We see Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope technology as an ideal tool for public science education in Asia—opening the door to the vast, mysterious universe."

    If you, too, are ready to explore the wonders of the stars and planets with WWT, you’ll be glad to know that the client is freely available at www.worldwidetelescope.org.

    —Noboru Kuno, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

    Guobin Wu, Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Asia

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