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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

    Virtual Fire System Aids Firefighters in Wildfire Combat and Prevention


    When a wildfire strikes, every second counts. Time lost can all too often be measured in lost life, deforestation, and property damage. Enter the Virtual Fire application, based on Microsoft Bing Maps, ESRI ArcGIS, and other software. This web geographic information system (GIS) platform is designed to support wildfire early warning, control, and civil protection by sharing information and tools produced by the Geography of Natural Disasters Laboratory at the University of the Aegean in Greece.

    With these new tools, firefighting personnel, emergency crews, and other authorities can design an operational plan to contain the forest fire, pinpointing the best ways to put it out with new levels of precision. Fire management professionals can locate fire service vehicles and other resources online and in real-time. Fire patrol aircrafts use Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking and communications to send coordinates for each item to Virtual Fire, which depicts them on a web GIS. Cameras can augment this data by transmitting images of high-risk areas into the Virtual Fire system.

    One of the compelling advantages of Virtual Fire is that it enables fire management professionals to take advantage of GIS capabilities without extensive training on complicated GIS applications. The platform enables end-users to query the databases and get answers immediately, locate points of interest in high-resolution satellite images, and download information to their portable computers or GPS devices.

    But the Virtual Fire application offers services beyond simple coordination of emergency efforts. Remote automatic weather stations and a weather forecasting system based on the SKIRON weather model (developed by the Atmospheric Modeling and Weather Forecasting group at the University of Athens) provide crucial data needed for fire prevention and early warning. Virtual Fire provides geographical representation of the fire risk potential and identifies high-risk areas at different local regions daily, based on a high performance computing (HPC) pilot application that runs on Windows HPC Server.

    "Virtual Fire hosts and visualizes models used for predicting forest fire risk and behavior to understand how the fire is likely to spread, based on the actual meteorological data, vegetation, and landscape morphology," says Kostas Kalabokidis, geography professor at University of the Aegean and principal investigator of the Virtual Fire initiative. "These prediction data—along with a plethora of other information spanning roads, location of water tanks, the positioning of aircrafts and vehicles, vegetation types, and weather data—will be visualized over online maps such as Bing Maps. This will enable fire fighters in control centers, or on-site via handheld devices, to more effectively manage forest fires and deal with any other emergencies situations that may arise."

    The system runs on servers that were donated by Hewlett Packard (three quad-core computing nodes: one head node and two computing nodes). By using the FARSITE and FlamMap fire behavior software (created by Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory), maps are produced on demand to graphically represent the spread and intensity of a forest fire at different times and places. In addition, user feeds and email messages provide effective communication between users and administrators for reporting events.

    During the course of its development, the Virtual Fire platform delivered some early successes in combating and even deterring wildfires. On July 8, 2009, an extremely dangerous wildfire broke out on Lesvos Island. The Virtual Fire system—which was at its initial stage, only partly operational with the fire-risk probability index and the weather forecasting and monitoring—provided the fire service with a better grasp of local topography and details of current and imminent weather as well as the high-risk prediction map. This resulted in a prompt initial response that prevented the fire from uncontrolled enlargement and encroachment to nearby sensitive ecological preserves and a military base camp. Virtual Fire successfully predicted the fire risk for the particular area where the event took place, which led to its status as a preferred fire risk prediction tool in 2010.

    During the 2010 fire season (from April to October), no serious fire breakouts developed on Lesvos Island, in contrast to other Greek islands such as Samos. Almost all of the fire events were promptly confronted; fires were not permitted to overgrow and they responded to initial efforts to subdue them. Evidence currently under investigation suggests that Virtual Fire played an important role in these improved results, offering the local fire service valuable information to utilize for decision support with their own considerable operational experience and knowledge.

    Coordinating Prefecture Board of Lesvos, Mytilene, in Greece

    Coordinating Prefecture Board of Lesvos, Mytilene, in Greece

    The results of the Virtual Fire initiative were presented July 6, 2010, at the Coordinating Prefecture Board of Lesvos, Mytilene, in Greece. Event attendees included the prefect and counsellors of Lesvos Prefecture, mayors and representatives of the Municipalities of Lesvos Island, heads of Civil Protection, officers and fire fighters of the North Aegean and Mytilene Fire Services, staff of Lesvos Forest Service, commanders and officers of military and public service authorities, representatives of social services and fire-fighting volunteer organizations of Lesvos Island, and the partners of the project from University of the Aegean, University of Athens, Microsoft Research, Microsoft Hellas, and Microsoft Innovation Center—Greece. For more information, read the press release.

    —Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche, Research Program Manager, External Research division of Microsoft Research, Cambridge

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    .NET Gadgeteer Redefines What Gadget Fans Can Do with Modular Components and Object-Oriented Programming


    This example of the Gadgeteer main board has several modules attached through standard connectors. The modules include a display, an LED, button, an Ethernet connection, and a Zigbee radio.Once upon a time, being a "gadget fanatic" usually meant you were an early adopter of new technologies, someone who'd own the latest multi-megapixel digital camera or high-powered handheld device. A rare few with engineering and embedded development programming skills might push this a bit further, creating something new from hardware components by soldering, wiring, and coding a new gizmo into existence. But such aspirations were out of reach for many hobbyists and potential inventors.

    All that is about to change. Before long, gadget groupies will be able to reach the level of custom hardware configuration thanks to the .NET Micro Framework and the forthcoming .NET Gadgeteer rapid prototyping platform. Perhaps best described as building blocks for electronics, an aspiring gadget maker can connect various hardware components (no soldering required), develop functionality by using object-oriented Microsoft .NET programming, and even design a novel enclosure for a custom device. Functions can include sensing the environment, taking pictures, displaying images, playing sounds, and even communicating with other devices and the Internet.

    In the coming year, .NET Micro Framework hardware modules—including displays, sensors, cameras, radios, MP3 players, and Ethernet ports—are expected to become available for purchase through third-party partners. The prototype hardware, available in kits to select researchers, was recently shared at the 2010 New York Maker Faire event for do-it-yourself technologists. The platform's inventor, Nicolas Villar, demonstrated the system with his Microsoft Research colleagues James Scott, Steve Hodges, and Kerry Hammil, together with the product unit manager for the .NET Micro Framework, Colin Miller. Attendees were impressed by the Gadgeteer demos, which included an MP3 player, a Simon-type matching game, and a remote sensing system that enabled users to control a camera. One attendee became so enthralled with the technology that he picked it up and started demoing it to others! The booth went on to win the Maker Faire "Editor's Choice Best-in-Show" and "Most Interactive Demo" awards.

    This is an exploded view of the Simon game (which was made as a demo for Maker Faire) showing the Gadgeteer modules and the custom case.Since Maker Faire, Microsoft Research has been developing the infrastructure needed to further develop Gadgeteer as a product and partnering with high school and university teachers to bring Gadgeteer to students. At an internal Microsoft "science fair" event, it beat out tough technological competitors to take the "President's Award" given by Terry Crowley, a technical fellow and the director of development for Microsoft Office.

    If you're interested in seeing the .NET Gadgeteer in action, you can view the Channel 9 video demonstration and the Make Magazine video from Maker Faire. Additional opportunities to see Gadgeteer in person are planned for the TEI 2011 Conference in January 2011 and Microsoft Research Software Summit in April 2011. If you're an educator who is interested in Gadgeteer, visit the .NET Micro Framework Academic page to get involved.

    —Scarlet Schwiderski-Grosche and Stewart Tansley, Research Program Managers in the External Research division of Microsoft Research

    P.S. Here's a festive example (semantic Christmas lights!) of what you can do with .NET Micro Framework, which should be even easier with Gadgeteer.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    Amplifying the Computer Science Education Message


    In case you missed it, there was a great deal of passion expressed last week regarding the state of computer science education in our society. There were outreach efforts, programs highlighted, and a number of online discussions that ensued—overall, some really impressive growth in activity across the board over last year in broad awareness.

    I decided to use the opportunity to spend a bit more dedicated time catching up on some online reports, material, and people.

    I started with Alfred Thompson's blog. He writes one of the most widely-read and highly-respected blogs on computer science in K-12. A former high school teacher, Alfred is smart, funny, and honest, but most importantly he has an amazing talent for appreciating the perspective of today’s youth, a solid understanding of pedagogy, and a passion and talent for computer science. His blog is stop #1, #2, and #3 for me on this topic.

    Mark Guzdial's Computing Education Blog is usually where I spend my time next. Mark’s comments are usually more education-centric than Alfred’s more broad technology posts. As a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, Mark sees, first-hand, the quality and quantity of students from our secondary school system. Mark is also very involved in the most active higher education debates on computer science and he frequently exchanges relevant opinions and ideas with other influencers in the field.

    I also took time to read the September 2010 update of "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," which is posted on the National Academies Press website. Sobering, alarming, convincing, and motivating. This revision is appropriate subtitled: Rapidly Approaching Category 5.

    Doing a bit of reflecting, and potentially stating the obvious ... the challenge is enormous and sometimes feels overwhelming, but it is also worth both support and action—even if the action seems small relative to the change needed.

    It is extremely satisfying to work for Microsoft in this situation because I feel that we are working toward the public good in this area and that I am a contributing member of these efforts.

    Microsoft supports thousands of people involved in outreach, including our own employees, who are frequent visitors and speakers at schools through a program called EduConnect, which enables Microsoft employees to share their knowledge and expertise with local school districts. We extend our outreach through the skills and enthusiasm of our Microsoft Student Partners—a program that recognizes top college students who are passionate about technology and communication, and equips them to share their computer know-how and enthusiasm. 

    We also attempt to motivate students through programs like the Imagine Cup and the upcoming Microsoft bliink 2011 web-design contest. Some students are more motivated by out-of-classroom learning situations and these programs encourage students to exercise both creativity and teamwork.

    Obviously, our efforts would not be complete without connection through social medial, and I believe the Microsoft Tech Student effort is the best of the lot.

    If you're a computer scientist, an IT professional, or simply a concerned citizen, I encourage you to get involved with your local schools and work to ensure that our students are getting the 21st-century education they need.

    —Jim Pinkelman, Senior Director in the External Research division of Microsoft Research

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