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Computer Science Students Aid Ecological Field Work

December 12, 2012 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

Plant biologists in Brazil are working to develop a better understanding of tropical ecosystems—how they work and how they impact climate change, not only in the region, but worldwide. These researchers are dedicated and disciplined. They’re in the field from dawn to dusk, working through rain, wind, heat, and cold, applying all of their energy to understanding these complex ecosystems. This is intense observational work: they take copious notes and then, after grueling hours in the field, they return to their labs and flesh out their field notes in detail, striving to fully capture and make sense of what they observed. It all adds up to a long day that can take a toll on even the most committed researchers.

At the University of Campinas (better known as UNICAMP), computer science professors Ricardo Torres and Cecilia Baranauskas are exploring solutions that might help these overworked field researchers. The professors’ computer science students are creating environmental data-management apps that allow plant biologists to go to the field, observe the ecosystem, take notes by using digital devices, and then push that data to the cloud. (This work is an outgrowth of a project in e-phenology, which is supported by the Microsoft Research–FAPESP Institute for IT Research.)

Environmental data-management app for recording and sharing field observations
Environmental data-management app for recording and sharing field observations

The environmental data-management apps should increase the precision and accuracy of the recorded data, eliminating the errors that often creep in during the transcription of handwritten notes. The ready availability of previously entered data will enable researchers in the field to easily compare new observations to past ones and to enter new information by updating a few spreadsheet cells. Moreover, by pushing the data to the cloud, it will be available to colleagues no matter where they are, enabling real-time collaboration between the researcher in the field and the team back in the lab.

With the goal of generating a variety of application ideas, the professors have split their computer science classes into multiple groups, each of which proposes a solution. Then they iterate. They talk with the plant biologists and accompany them to the field, in order to understand their needs. If all goes as planned, these students will devise applications that enable biologists to more fully record their observations in real time and preserve the record quickly, safely, and accessibly in the cloud. And what a nice convergence of high-tech computer science and shoe-leather biology that will be!

—Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections

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