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Microsoft, Google unveil climate change Web apps

Microsoft and Google have built Web applications designed to highlight environmental problems coinciding with the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen that run through Friday.

Microsoft is working with the European Environmental Agency (EEA) to use its Bing Maps, Silverlight multimedia technology and Azure cloud platform to show how climate change is affecting certain regions in Europe.

The Web site, called the Environmental Atlas of Europe, will inform people about climate-change stories and interesting projects, such as wine farmers in the Tuscany region of Italy who run a carbon-negative farm to a city in Denmark that uses 100% renewable energy, said Bert Jansen, technology lead for the EEA.

“It's strange that not everybody is aware of these kinds of initiatives,” Jansen said. “I think it's important that good initiatives get the attention that they deserve.”

Microsoft and the EEA also launched another Web site called Bend the Trend, where people can pick from up to 45 pledges for how they can reduce their impact on the environment. Pledges, which are marked on an interactive Bing map, include eating less meat, turning down thermostats and recycling all paper.

Both Web sites are essentially data visualization tools focused on environmental information, said Ludo De Bock, senior director for European Union and NATO relations for Microsoft. Jansen said that the EEA has a lot of data, such as noise pollution data, that could be overlaid onto the Web sites.

Google is also lending its cloud-computing power to help scientists keep closer tabs on deforestation. Over the next year or so, Google expects to release an online version of a tool that analyzes raw satellite imagery to compare deforestation over time. The tool will enable the creation of deforestation maps much faster than before.

The application is essentially an online version of those built by forest researchers Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Carlos Souza of Imazon, an Amazon rain forest research institute. Their applications are used across Latin America, but analysis had been hampered by a lack of access to satellite images and slow computational resources, according to a Google blog post.

The platform offers a much cheaper way for countries to measure deforestation since Google's data centers can serve up terabytes of satellite images and contribute a massive amount of computational power from its data centers.

“On a top-of-the-line desktop computer, it can take days or weeks to analyze deforestation over the Amazon,” wrote Rebecca Moore, engineering manager, and Amy Luers, environment manager for Google.org, the company's philanthropic branch. “Using our cloud-based computing power, we can reduce that time to seconds. Being able to detect illegal logging activities faster can help support local law enforcement and prevent further deforestation from happening.”

Google said a prototype of the platform is available now to a limited number of partners, but it should be rolled out to the public over the next year.

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