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December, 2011

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.

December, 2011

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    RFP on Using Technology to Combat Human Trafficking

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    Human trafficking of minors—including the illegal trade of children and teens for commercial sexual exploitation—is a crime so vile that it makes most people shudder. But unfortunately, not everyone recoils: pedophiles and procurers have made the commercial sexual exploitation of children an international business, and there is little doubt that technology is increasingly playing a role in their criminal practices. Which is why today I am pleased to announce that Microsoft Research Connections is partnering with danah boyd, one of the top social media researchers from the Microsoft New England Research and Development Lab, and the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to investigate the implications of technology in this heinous crime.

    According to Shared Hope International, at least 100,000 juveniles are the victims of child sex exploitation in the United States each year. (photo courtesy of iStockphoto)
    According to Shared Hope International, at least 100,000 juveniles are the victims of child sex exploitation in the United States each year. (photo courtesy of iStockphoto)

    Technology is a tool, and like any tool, it can be put to good or evil purposes. Currently, there is a paucity of information regarding technology’s role in human trafficking. We don’t know if there are more human trafficking victims as a result of technology, nor do we know if law enforcement can identify perpetrators more readily from the digital traces that they leave. One thing that we do know is that technology makes many aspects of human trafficking more visible and more traceable, for better and for worse. Yet focusing on whether technology is good or bad misses the point; it is here to stay, and it is imperative that we understand its part in human trafficking. More importantly, we need to develop innovative ways of using technology to address the horrors of this crime.

    Over the last several months, I have spent significant time talking with organizations, victims, and researchers who are working on this problem. It has become a passion for me, in part because at age 14 I ran away from home. I was put in a group home, then into foster care, and finally emancipated. Back then, I was fortunate that no one targeted me or trapped me into the human trade; living on the street and working in the human trade never crossed my mind. And luckily, I found teachers who helped me understand my potential and the opportunities available to me. Now, in partnership with the anti-trafficking community, I want to do all I can to develop innovative ways of using technology to combat human trafficking and help minors in the United States understand there are other options.

    To do so, we must untangle technology’s role in different aspects of the human trafficking ecosystem. This is our hope with this RFP, and we look forward to hearing your responses.

    Rane Johnson, Director of Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Layerscape for Earth-Science Storytelling

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    Layerscape: Enabling Earth scientists to explore planet EarthEvery so often, a new platform comes along that really shakes things up. Well, if you’re part of the earth-sciences community, prepare to be shaken, because Microsoft Research has just released a new way to convey earth-science concepts. It’s called Layerscape, and I like to think of it as a storytelling medium, since transmitting scientific ideas, especially those involving complex datasets, comes down to creating narratives. I work on earth-science storytelling at Microsoft Research Connections, and I’d like to walk you through just a couple of the many features of Layerscape.

    First, let me explain that Layerscape is a data visualization engine that was originally developed as WorldWide Telescope (WWT), an astronomical observatory housed within your PC. WWT was and is a wonderful tool for exploring the heavens, but right from the start is was more than just a powerful telescope on your PC. It is also a treasure trove of information drawn from cumulative scholarly publications and databases, including SIMBAD (the Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data), which gives you a list of objects visible in any particular corner of the night sky.

    And if you think the sky’s the limit, then think again, because soon after it was developed, WWT had expanded beyond astronomy, adding, among other things, a careful construction of the Earth, textured with fine-scale imagery courtesy of Bing Maps. Now earth science has become the central theme in the next phase of WWT’s life, with Layerscape as the digital ecosystem for creating and sharing three-dimensional visual stories based on earth-science data.

    The first feature of Layerscape I want to describe is communities. At the Layerscape website, under the “Browse by” drop-down, you will find content categories (Life Science, Climate, and so forth) that organize existing content. The communities feature, by contrast, lets you build structure around your own content. You can create a community around any idea you like and add whatever content you wish. What’s more, you can create WWT tours, which are special narratives built around data.

    Once your community exists, you can selectively invite participants to join, or you can throw it open to the public. Let’s suppose you’ve gone the public route, and I decide to subscribe to your community. Now I can see what’s in your community and, in particular, I can load and view your tours directly on my computer. And since the tours’ underlying data is included, I can look beyond your narrative to explore the data for myself.

    Okay, so what can I do with your data? Lots. This brings me to the second of Layerscape’s many features, what I will call “separation of data from perspective.” This feature works on data that exists in three dimensions and has a temporal aspect, allowing you to animate the data to see it unfold over time (probably at an accelerated or decelerated pace)—while you fly around examining it from any perspective or viewing angle you like.

    Layerscape user interfaceFor example, I’m currently building a tour from data compiled by Gavin Hayes of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center. In particular, I’m exploring Gavin’s data on subduction slabs, those enormous, 500-kilometer-thick boundaries where tectonic plates shove one another around. That data is pretty interesting, especially when you use WTT’s time control to speed it up by a factor of 10,000. Doing so enables me to see the recorded earthquakes, which betray the subduction slabs’ structure, popping off like fireworks all around the slabs. Better yet, I can use Layerscape’s separate perspective control to watch the action from many different angles. I can look at the data glowing down in the depths below, or I can fly down inside the Earth and look back up at it. This lets me create stories around the data that hadn’t been told before—stories that can change how we explore and come to understand our increasingly complex data.

    I can’t wait to see stories you’ll create with Layerscape! Try out the Layerscape beta, create virtual tours, and participate in communities where you can share your content and provide feedback.

    Rob Fatland, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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    • Layerscape Beta
    • Layerscape Project
    • Earth, Energy, and Environment at Microsoft Research Connections
    • WorldWide Telescope

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    No CS Student Left Behind

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    Students try out TouchDevelopComputer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek), which took place this year from December 4 to 10 in the United States, is a celebration of computer science education. And while it’s a great idea to devote a week to recognizing the importance of this field, it’s a topic that demands year-round attention all over the world. That’s why we at Microsoft Research Connections have partnered with the Kent (Washington) School District to provide ongoing support for students and teachers at the district’s tech academies.

    Together, we are working to generate enthusiasm among Kent students for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We chose the Friday before the beginning of CSEdWeek to kick off the partnership with a daylong event designed to reach every seventh- through twelfth-grader at Kent’s two tech academy campuses. Microsoft Research participants included an expert on interaction, media, and visualization browsing; an earth systems scientist (and former NASA employee); as well as a software engineer, a mechanical engineer, and the author of books about quantum mechanics and relativity. These dedicated researchers spent the day teaching how to use Microsoft technology tools (including TouchDevelop and WorldWide Telescope), tutoring on math and science topics, and presenting information about careers in research. Our overarching goal was to help students understand that many of the most difficult problems in the world can be solved by computer science and to excite them about the great career opportunities in STEM.

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    We strongly encouraged the students to continue their computer science education when they attend college. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 2008 and 2018, 1.4 million computing jobs will have opened in the United States. If current graduation rates continue, only 61 percent of these jobs could be filled by U.S. computing degree-earners—a figure that drops to 29 percent when only computing bachelor’s degrees are included (source: NCWIT). This is why CSEdWeek is important on a national level in the United States.

    At the personal level, CSEdWeek and projects like our partnership with the Kent Technology Academy expose students to critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are vital to success in the digital age. Through our efforts to reach K-12 students, we are striving to generate enthusiasm for computing careers, which are not only exciting, plentiful, and financially rewarding, but most importantly, provide an opportunity to tackle some of the world's greatest challenges.

    The classroom visits on December 2 were just the beginning of our partnership with the Kent School District, the fourth largest and one of the most diverse in the state of Washington. Throughout the year, various team members from Microsoft Research will conduct presentations to help the students better understand careers in research and technology. And this spring, the academy’s seventh- and ninth-graders will visit Microsoft Research to see the researchers in their “native habitat.” Additionally, some students will work on using TouchDevelop to create applications for the Windows Phone 7, while others will learn about game programming via a visual object-oriented programming tool called Kodu.

    We look forward to celebrating computer science education year round!

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science at Microsoft Research Connections, and Rane Johnson, Director of Education and Scholarly Communication at Microsoft Research Connections

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