Microsoft helps study oceans, volcanoes, life's start

Researchers building software to handle data feed from worldwide underwater sensors

Microsoft is developing software to help scientists study the ocean to learn more about undersea volcanoes, weather patterns, global warming and even where they think life on Earth may have started.

As part of the Trident Project, sensor arrays are being constructed off the western coast of Canada and in Monterey Bay off the California coast. The plan, according to Debbie Kelley, a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, is to set up sensor arrays in oceans around the world that will feed data to scientists on water currents, temperatures, fish stocks and undersea seismic activity.

Despite the ocean depths and harsh conditions, the toughest part of the project may be handling the deluge of information the project is starting to produce - terabytes of data daily today and even more expected as the project grows.

To help control the deluge, programmers at Microsoft Research are working to build software tools to help the oceanographers more efficiently process and analyze the data. Without software to manage the information, the effort would be akin to a fire hose of data that would overwhelm scientists and largely go unused.

"Our goal is to learn about how key things on our planet work," said Kelley, who noted that the global project is related to the university's Neptune project, which is a study of activity off the coast of Washington and Oregon. "Ocean conditions drive our weather. If a drought is coming, we'll see signs ahead of time in the ocean. Hot springs on the sea floor may be where life started. We need to understand how all these processes are interlinked."

Kelley added that scientists traditionally would embed a single sensor in the ocean and then pull data from it a year later. With this project, she's hoping to have 150 to 250 sensors in place that will use cameras, seismometers and sonar that are connected by fiber optic cable. There are plans to build undersea sensor arrays off the coasts of Ireland, China, Korea and several European countries.

"Without software, it would be very, very difficult to do anything with all of this data," she noted. "This is just a fire hose of data. You have to have smart programs that say, 'Forget the other data today and look at these anomalies here.' We need software connected to our underwater video cameras that will say, 'Hey, here's something we haven't seen in 24 days. You need to look at this.'"

Microsoft is teaming up with the University of Washington and the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the project. Microsoft Research is focused on building a data flow management system that will parse the data, alert scientists to anomalies and even visualize the information coming in.

"It's a big, big time nightmare," said Roger S. Barga, an architect of advanced strategies and policy at Microsoft. "Normally, it would take weeks or months to process this kind of data. Someone would put it on a disk, someone else would clean it, someone would put it on a grid and someone would do the data processing."

The workflow software that Microsoft is building is expected to go into beta by December and be completed within a "few years", according to Barga, who added that it will be open-sourced and its code freely available to scientists.

"Sixty percent of the world's volcanoes are under water," said Kelley, who noted that the information they cull from the sensors will be publicly available. "They're the basic building blocks of how our planet was formed. They're the geological and tectonic processes that drive our planet. Understanding underwater eruptions gives us an understanding of how life can exist without sunlight. There's a lot for us to try to understand."

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