“Despite its size, Puget Sound is ecologically delicate; and while its symptoms of trouble are not easily visible, they are undeniable and getting worse.”
—The Puget Sound Partnership
We at Microsoft Research Connections have begun work on a cooperative research and development (R&D) project with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that centers on the restoration of large aquatic ecosystems, particularly Puget Sound. On Friday, November 30, we got together and put our respective imprimaturs on the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), the formal agreement for this partnership. Now all that remains is to do the actual work! Here are some details about the project, which was created under the auspices of the Federal Technology Transfer Act, and why it is so exciting for us.
As you may know, we have a history—under the leadership of Vice President Tony Hey—of collaborating with researchers outside of Microsoft. Often, we collaborate with academicians doing research in computer science or—in my case—using technology to cope with environmental and geoscience data. We’re also very interested in how science registers in the public domain. For example: land-use policy can benefit from scientific insight, and we think that if technology can help scientists do data-intensive research, it should also help us manage resources, find better ways to preserve habitat, and better share this information with farmers, tribes, municipalities, and the general public. Taking an active role in the stewardship of our shared environment is what the EPA is about, so we began talking with them about working together.
Tony Hey, vice president, Microsoft Research Connections, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator, EPA Region 10, shake on the agreement.
It can be difficult to comprehend how big our environment is and yet how tiny its essential elements are. Viewing Puget Sound from 40,000 feet above, it is a vast, beautiful expanse of waterways, inlets, islands, and peninsulas that are crisscrossed with the indelible stamp of cities, roads, and ferry boats supporting the lives of a few million people. Drop your perspective to the shoreline of Fir Island (Washington), and you find green strands of eelgrass washed up on the beach; under a microscope, these strands explode into millions of nodules of chlorophyll, the stuff that converts sunlight into sugar and powers the entire food web all the way up through the salmon. My point is that we inhabit the land and we depend on the health of our natural environment: from the great waterways we use for shipping to the smallest microbes and molecules. As the Puget Sound Partnership has stated, we have work to do to restore and protect the ecological health of Puget Sound, but where to begin?
The idea of this new cooperative R&D project with the EPA is to explore how available data and technology might be fused to help us better understand and meet the needs of the restoration community, including the kinds of cooperative relationships the community members want to build between the public, the land-holders, the decision makers at the county and city level, and so on. From this learning perspective, we are confident that we can imagine and build proof-of-concept solutions that would be openly available for further development and adoption. For example, we imagine (from preliminary work) applying PhotoSynth technology to the challenge of creating a more robust depiction of the shoreline. Human-built structures like sea walls are distributed throughout Puget Sound and can impact habitat, particularly for grazing fish that spawn in shallow water. More broadly, we see similar efforts at organizations like the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) that aim to assemble and disseminate data about sea conditions, tides, and weather to help commercial fishing operations become more efficient.
What more can be done? The opportunities are boundless! What is really exciting is that our colleagues at EPA and in the broader Puget Sound community share a passion for this work; we feel very fortunate to be a part of it and are enthusiastic about the opportunity to contribute.
—Rob Fatland, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections