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Microsoft is teaming up with several US universities to use cloud and big data technologies to forward natural conservation efforts

Microsoft is teaming up with several US universities to use cloud and big data technologies to forward natural conservation efforts

The Natural Capital Project, a ten-year partnership between Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota to determine the economic value of natural landscapes is using Microsoft’s cloud and big data technologies to help analyse and visualise data that can help municipal policy-makers improve the environment in and around cities.

The recently announced partnership will see Microsoft offer up a range of technologies to help the project’s researchers better analyse the features impacting natural ecosystems surrounding cities, and quantify the impact of natural disasters, development or how other dependencies are brought to bear on those ecosystems.

Mary Ruckelshaus, managing director of the Natural Capital Project told BCN the project is important because it will help demonstrate both how people depend on the environment and increase awareness of their impact on nature.

“City dwellers depend on nature in many ways–wetlands, marshes, and dunes protect them and their property from coastal flooding, trees and other vegetation filter particulates for clean air, and green spaces reduce temperature stress and improve cognitive function and mental health, just to name a few,” she said.

The researchers will collect data from that broad set of sources including satellite imagery, remote sensors, and social media, and use Microsoft Azure to model the data and deliver the results to a range of mobile devices.

“Our focus with The Natural Capital Project is on enabling leaders in the public and private sector to have access to the best data, powerful analytic and visualization tools so that they can more deeply understand historical trends and patterns within the city or company, predict future situations, model “what-if” scenarios, and gain vital situational awareness from multiple data streams such as satellite imagery, social media and other public channels,” explained Josh Henretig, senior director of environmental sustainability at Microsoft.

“The increased prevalence and availability of data from satellite imagery, remote sensors, surveys and social media channels means that we can analyse, model and predict an extremely diverse set of properties associated with the ecosystems on which we depend,” he said.

Henretig explained to BCN that the Natural Capital Project is the first to try and quantify the economic and social value of natural capital, which means developing the required models and tools needed to complete the analysis will be a challenging undertaking in itself.

“That is a huge, complex undertaking, without any precedent to guide it. As a result, we face the challenge of driving awareness that these tools and this knowledge is available for leaders to draw from. In addition, the sheer diversity of global ecosystems, shared ecosystems, their states of health or decline and differing local and regional priorities make creating tools that can be adapted to assess a variety of circumstances quite a challenge.”

While Henretig acknowledge that it’s often hard for municipal policy-makers to make long-term environmental decisions when people are struggling with more immediate needs, he said the Project will help generate both vital data on the economic value of natural systems as well as suggestions for how they can move forward in policy terms.

“In partnership with cities, we are going to help turn this data—produced across multiple systems for, among other things, buildings, transportation, energy grids, and forests, streams and watersheds—into actionable information and solutions,” he said, adding that the company hopes to apply the models and techniques generated by the research partners to other cities.

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