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Microsoft aims to build Planetary Computer system for sustainability

Microsoft’s Planetary Computer platform will combine global datasets to help organisations manage biodiversity and reduce climate change

Building on Microsoft’s 2030 carbon negative commitment announced in January, the company’s president Brad Smith has unveiled plans for a global computing initiative for sustainability.

In a post on Microsoft’s website, Smith wrote: “Our community needs a new kind of computing platform – a Planetary Computer, a platform that would provide access to trillions of data points collected by people and by machines in space, in the sky, in and on the ground and in the water.

“One that would allow users to search by geographic location instead of keyword. Where users could seamlessly go from asking a question about what environments are in their area of interest, to asking where a particular environment exists around the world.”

According to Smith, by offering state-of-the-art machine learning tools and the ability to publish new results and predictions as services available to the global community, such a platform would enable users to find answers to new kinds of questions.

“This Planetary Computer would provide insights into critical questions that scientists, conservation organisations and businesses already ask every day, often with no easy way to obtain a locally relevant answer,” he said.

Such questions range from understanding the implications of tree density, land use and size of forests on biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation to providing satellite data, local measurements of streams and groundwater, and predictive algorithms to enable land planners and farmers to make data-driven decisions about water resources.

“Wildlife conservation organisations depend on their own local surveys, global views of wildlife populations, and suitable habitats for wildlife. The Planetary Computer will combine information about terrain types and ecosystems with the best available data about where species live, enabling a global community of wildlife biologists to benefit from each other’s data,” Smith wrote.

Combating climate changes requires organisations to measure and manage natural resources that sequester carbon, such as trees, grasslands and soil.

Smith said the Planetary Computer will combine satellite imagery with artificial intelligence (AI) to provide up-to-date information about ecosystems, and provide a platform for leveraging predictive models to estimate global carbon stocks and inform decisions about land use that affect our ability to address climate change.

Smith announced that Microsoft was entering the next phase of its AI for Earth programme, committed to building this planetary computer platform through dedicated investments in infrastructure development.

“We will provide our AI for Earth community – more than 500 grants in 81 countries – access to the world’s critical environmental datasets, and a computing platform to analyse those datasets on. We will also further invest in specific environmental solution areas like species identification, land cover mapping, and land use optimisation,” he said.

Smith added that Microsoft was also building the tools and services to help customers worldwide understand the ecosystem around them today as it exists, monitor and model changes from climate or human behaviour, and manage these in a way that protects biodiversity, their community’s well-being and way of life, and the planet.

He said Microsoft was working with geospatial data specialist Esri to make key geospatial datasets available on Azure and accessible through Esri tools later this year. “We will continue to partner to provide grants that ensure conservation organisations have access to the datasets, compute and other resources,” Smith added.

Read more about biodiversity and sustainability

  • A paper on sustainable ICT published by Defra in conjunction with the IT industry has identified the areas of e-waste that need urgent attention.
  • Trials of ‘smart hive’ technology have enabled The World Bee Project to collect billions of data points about the health and activity of honey bees, for scientific research and conservation efforts.
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