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July, 2014

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.

July, 2014

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    How might climate change affect our food supply?

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    How might climate change affect our food supply?It’s no easy question to answer, but prudence demands that we try. Thus, Microsoft and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have teamed up to tackle “food resilience,” one of several themes that make up the White House’s Climate Data Initiative.

    “Through his Climate Data Initiative, President Obama is calling for all hands on deck to unleash data and technology in ways that will make businesses and communities more resilient to climate change,” said John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor. “The commitments being announced today answer that call by empowering the U.S. and global agricultural sectors with the tools and information needed to keep food systems strong and secure in a changing climate.”

    The Climate Data Initiative has unleashed a torrent of climate-related data from NOAA, NASA, the US Geological Survey, US Department of Defense, and other federal agencies, including the USDA. These facts and figures, which reside on Data.gov's Climate website, pose a classic “big data” challenge: how to efficiently analyze enormous information sets and share the meaningful insights.

    The overarching goal is to discover the food supply's key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency to climate change.
    The overarching goal is to discover the food supply's key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency to climate change.

    Microsoft has posted the USDA datasets to the Microsoft Azure Marketplace (enter search term USDA), and, together with the USDA, we will be sponsoring workshops, webinars, and “appathons” to demonstrate the value of open access data and to promote the development of tools for understanding these datasets. The overarching goal is to encourage data providers, scientists, farmers, food producers and the public to discover the food supply’s key vulnerabilities and inherent resiliency. This predictive information will inform a planning model built on the powerful business intelligence tools that are part of the Microsoft Azure cloud-computing platform, enabling federal agencies, along with the public, access and tools to promote data synthesis with other data sources.

    To advance this effort even further, Microsoft Research is announcing a special Climate Data RFP focused on food resilience in the face of climate change. This RFP offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014. Each award provides up to 180,000 hours of cloud-computing time and 20 terabytes of cloud storage.

    The award offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014.The award offers 12 months of free cloud-computing resources to 20 awardees selected from proposals submitted by September 15, 2014.

    To qualify for the awards program, you must be affiliated with an academic institution or non-profit research laboratory. In addition to individual investigator projects, we are interested in projects that will support access to services and data of value to a collaboration or community.

    Your proposal should not exceed three pages in length. It should include resource requirement estimates (number of core, storage requirements, and so forth) for your project. Apply and learn more about the RFP at Food Resilience Climate Data Initiative.

    We encourage all investigators to join with the USDA and us in an effort to understand the impact of climate change on our food supply.

    Dan Fay, Director for Earth, Energy, and Environment, Microsoft Research

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    New Spanish edition of “The Fourth Paradigm: Data Intensive Scientific Discovery”

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    "El Cuarto Paradigma," Spanish edition of "The Fourth Paradigm"I had the pleasure of joining members of the Mexican research community on May 28, 2014, to celebrate the launch of the Spanish edition of The Fourth Paradigm: Data Intensive Scientific Discovery, a seminal collection of essays that expand on the vision of pioneering computer scientist Jim Gray. The event took place in the beautiful Casa Rafael Galván cultural center at the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) in Mexico City, one of the most prestigious public universities in Mexico.

    This fascinating book's title refers to a concept in data-intensive science. The speed at which any given scientific discipline advances depends on how well its researchers collaborate with one another, and with computer scientists, in areas of eScience such as databases, workflow management, visualization, and cloud computing technologies. Gray envisioned a new "fourth paradigm" of discovery based on data-intensive science, and shared his insights into how it can be fully realized. The book expands on Gray's ideas through essays written by members of the scientific community.

    The Fourth Paradigm Spanish edition is the result of a partnership between UAM and Microsoft Research. We worked together on the translation and co-sponsored its publication. We also co-hosted the launch event, welcoming our colleagues from UAM, National Polytechnic Institute, National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), and Microsoft Mexico, plus faculty and staff.

    Dr. Walter Beller, director of University Press at UAM, welcomed us to the event and discussed the importance of the project and the university's partnership with Microsoft Research. Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research and one of the book's editors, made a pre-taped appearance onscreen. Tony highlighted the importance of how the new edition will extend the idea of data-intensive scientific discovery to a worldwide audience of Spanish speakers. He concluded by thanking everyone involved in the successful launch of the Spanish edition.

    Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research and one of the book's editors, made a pre-taped appearance onscreen at the launch celebration.
    Tony Hey, vice president of Microsoft Research and one of the book's editors, made a pre-taped appearance onscreen at the launch celebration.

    We had many terrific speakers throughout the event. Harold Javid, director of Microsoft Research, formally unveiled the book and presented some applicability examples of the Fourth Paradigm to specific research scenarios. Dr. Luis Hernandez, director of Research Networks at CONACYT, reiterated the importance of translating material like The Fourth Paradigm into other languages to make it accessible to a broader audience. The discussion continued with additional presentations. Dr. Luis Villa, Director of the Center for Computing Research (CIC) at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) spoke on the third chapter of the book, "Scientific Infrastructure," and related it to the Microsoft Azure for Research training session held at IPN in Mexico City, May 29–30, 2014. Other speakers that afternoon included Carlos Allende, public sector director from Microsoft Mexico, and me.

    While the event was definitely a celebration, it was also a great way to recognize the important role this translated work will play in the Spanish-speaking world. Sharing ideas and concepts is a critical part of the research lifecycle, but language barriers can make it difficult. This new, translated edition of Gray's innovative work means a broader audience, and potentially future generations of scientists, will now be able to explore his ideas and the concepts developed by using his work as a starting point. That is truly something worth celebrating.

    Jaime Puente, Director, Microsoft Research Latin America

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    New hope for people living with paralysis

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    When we released the Lab of Things a year ago, we knew that it would benefit researchers experimenting with connected devices in various domains. It has been very gratifying to see how the Lab of Things has helped to accelerate research on helping people with disabilities to live more independent lives.

    Essentially, the Lab of Things is a research platform that enables the deployment of connected devices and sensors at scale. By providing a client-side set of components called HomeOS, the Lab of Things frees researchers from having to develop the complete software stack for deploying their experiments. The HomeOS enables a simple yet powerful connectivity and experiment execution environment. The Lab of Things also comes with a set of cloud services for updating, monitoring, and storage, allowing researchers to scale up deployments and deploy in geographically diverse locations. These features lower the barriers for testing new devices and understanding their behavior in a quick, stable, and repeatable fashion.

    Researchers have been using the Lab of Things to develop new technologies. Professor Nilanjan Banerjee of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and I recently had the opportunity to describe some of these exciting new technologies during an online webcast of the 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Summit.

    Professor Banerjee was an early Lab of Things adopter. He approached us shortly after we released it, speaking passionately about developing sensors that could help people with limited mobility lead more independent lives by enabling them to control the environment in their home and workplaces. The Lab of Things and its underlying HomeOS seemed the perfect platform for his project. It would allow him to test his ideas quickly and adapt his design as necessary.

    He started working with Buz Chmielewski, who became a quadriplegic after a surfing accident 25 years earlier. Buz helped Professor Banerjee test his design and arrive at a more usable sensor. After nearly a year, Professor Banerjee and his colleagues had developed a sensor that detects gestures and uses them to activate lights and other appliances in the home. The sensor can be sewn almost anything in the environment—for example, clothing or bedding.

    The sensor design for this project was developed by Professor Ryan Robucci and his team. With the Lab of Things, Professor Robucci was able to develop and test the sensor components quickly without having to develop the accompanying software. Also part of this project was Dr. Sandy McCombe-Waller from the University of Maryland, School of Medicine, who specializes in rehabilitation of people with various forms of injuries and disabilities. She helped with understanding the various types of mobility issues involved, and with the Lab of Things was able to test various designs of the sensor quickly.

    Over the past year, the Lab of Things has also grown in what it offers. Recently we added support for the Arduino hardware prototyping board, opening up the Lab of Things to a whole new world of experimentation with new sensors and devices. The Lab of Things also supports web calls to services such as Weather Underground. All of the apps and drivers are available as sample code for users to adapt.

    Arjmand Samuel, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research

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