Posted by Rob Knies

Photographic analysis of agricultural fieldPeople need food, regularly and often. That’s such an obvious truth that’s it’s easy to lose sight of it—easy, that is, until calamity strikes and the food supply is endangered, as it could be in the wake of ongoing changes to Earth’s climate. That prospect is far from inviting.

This is why Microsoft supports the White House’s inclusion of Food Resilience as one of the themes of its Climate Data Initiative (CDI), an effort to open, organize, and centralize climate-relevant data on Data.gov’s Climate website. And that’s why teams from across Microsoft—including the company’s research unit—are playing an intrinsic role in supporting the initiative.

The CDI was announced on June 25, 2013, by U.S. President Barack Obama. Little more than a year later, progress is under way. Work on the Coastal Flooding Risks to Communities theme began in March, and in Washington, D.C., on July 29, the White House announced public and private partnerships and commitments in further support of CDI.

One of those partnerships features the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) joining forces with Microsoft Research to organize data sets and tools in the cloud to provide insight into vulnerabilities in the food system. Climate change could affect almost all aspects of that system, from the ability to grow food, to the reliability of food transportation and food safety, to international trade in agricultural goods.

Microsoft has posted the USDA data sets to the Microsoft Azure Marketplace—they can be accessed by entering the search term “USDA”—to help make it easier for others to obtain data for analysis and apps. Those data and associated tools are provided by Microsoft Research as part of the Microsoft Azure for Research program.

“Microsoft is working with the USDA on the CDI initiative,” says Dan Fay, director of Earth, Energy, and Environment for Microsoft Research, “because we believe that technology can help with the challenge of climate change and food resilience.

“This can be accomplished through making the data much more available via the Microsoft Azure Marketplace—as well as helping users better analyze the data via tools such as Microsoft Excel and cloud-based tools such as Azure Machine Learning.”

Microsoft contributions to the CDI Food Resilience initiative are broad and detailed. Among them are the Azure Marketplace, which not only will expose the USDA data sets, but also will add more data sets over the next year, as well as introducing an Agriculture tab to its user interface; Power BI, which provides self-service data analytics and provides free access to the Azure Marketplace; and the Developer and Partner Evangelism and Microsoft in the Public Sector groups, which will co-create and drive activations for a planned series of related appathons.

Microsoft Research, too, has a robust role to play in topics that affect agriculture, such as assuring food safety, protecting natural resources, fostering rural communities, and addressing hunger, both in the United States and abroad.

The USDA and Microsoft Research will co-host a pair of innovation workshops in Washington, D.C., on July 30 to engage with farmers and producers to understand the challenges they face.

The first, a morning workshop focusing on food production, will be held at the White House and will address the need for data and tools that can be used by young farmers and producers to cope with climate change.

In the afternoon, the CDI spotlight moves from the White House to the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center on K Street for a workshop on safe food distribution and the data and tools distributors need as the climate changes.

Microsoft and the USDA also will host the Innovation Challenge, a series of developer activities related to food resilience in key U.S. metro areas, at Microsoft Innovation Centers and collegiate campuses, from Oct. 20-Dec. 10.

The goals of the challenge, beyond demonstrating Microsoft’s commitment to addressing climate change with tools and services, are to develop and publish new apps and tools to visualize and analyze multiple sources of data. Those apps and tools will enable new questions to be answered and will encourage users to create apps to reformat complicated USDA data sets into the Azure interface.

“The Innovation Challenge,” Fay says, “is a way to focus attention on how the data sets being made available in the Microsoft Azure Marketplace from the USDA and other agencies can be used to create new analyses and make the results available via tools and applications.

“This is an opportunity for individuals to use the data sets in innovative ways for the betterment of society.”

Participants in the Innovation Challenge—as well as the general public—will benefit from a series of webinars produced by Microsoft and the USDA to describe the data sets and drive awareness of open-source data provided by the U.S. government. The series will come after the workshops, aligned with the release of new data sets in the Azure Data Marketplace.

In addition, Microsoft Research will offer a CDI award program with another Microsoft Azure Request for Proposals, this one devoted to food resilience. Twenty awardees who submit proposals by Sept. 15 will receive a year’s worth of free cloud-computing resources. Each award provides as many as 180,000 hours of cloud-computing time and 20 terabytes of cloud storage.

All of these efforts, from the White House, the USDA, and Microsoft, are designed to forestall the day when climate change interrupts the world’s food store.

“Making the outcome of the analysis more widely available and accessible via apps on mobile devices and PCs,” Fay says, “is a key way that Microsoft can help.”