Making a real impact in shaping better governments: How Microsoft Research helps

04 May 2012 | Alan Merrihew, Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

One of the really fun parts of my job is that I get to show our government customers the new and exciting work being conducted by our Microsoft Research division, particularly in areas that have direct application to the public sector. 

Take, for example, the recently announced Microsoft Research project called Layerscape. Layerscape is an initiative that takes the technology developed for our Worldwide Telescope visualization software and aims it, not at outer space, but at our own earth and oceans. It allows users to discover new insights into the world around us by using familiar tools like Excel to visualize and explore large and complex data sets about the Earth’s environment. 

Geospatial data sets are one of the foundations of every government database, whether it is at the central, regional, or local government level. These government repositories of geospatial information comprise a significant portion of the Big Data that governments are wrestling with today. The challenge of making sense of this data becomes even more acute with the advent of massive data sets that are being generated by sensors and robotics (such as the massive amount of data being generated by the robotic mapping of our oceans). 

However, Layerscape now gives governments the ability to visualize and explore this Big Data – from above and below the Earth’s surface—in ways that were not possible before. Earth events that have a space and time dimension such as earthquakes, geothermal maps, ocean currents, population migration, etc., are great candidates for study and collaboration using Layerscape. Also using Layerscape, users can easily create and share 3-D virtual tour movies of the earth and oceans based on their discoveries and collaborate with others in the community, taking the notion of crowdsourcing to a whole new level.

Another example of the exciting work coming out of Microsoft Research is TouchDevelop. TouchDevelop is a new programming environment and language built to address application development in a world of touch screens instead of keyboards. TouchDevelop is a typed, structured programming language that uses the touch screen on a Windows Phone 7 as the programmer’s input device. It has built-in functions that give users easy access to the sensor data (location, acceleration, etc.,) and connectivity options available on a mobile device. There is automatic synchronization of data and execution between the client and the cloud, which frees up the programmer to focus on the application itself and not the plumbing behind it. 

In a government context, TouchDevelop makes it very easy for almost anyone in government to program an applet, or small application, using their Windows smartphone. When I recently hosted a couple of folks from a government Minister of IT’s office and showed them the work we are doing with TouchDevelop, they were so excited that they responded “We need to get our Prime Minister a Windows Phone 7 so he can start using TouchDevelop!”

Outside of government, TouchDevelop has also been used in the classroom to inspire a new generation of students to become interested in programming. After leading a classroom workshop, the TouchDevelop team said that the students came out of the room asking for a “cool Windows Phone 7 device” so they can keep playing (learning programming) with it.

My final example of innovative work at Microsoft Research is White Space technology. White Space technology enables a device to use the gaps in the TV signal spectrum to make a long range wireless connection to the Internet. The current limitation for Wi-Fi or cellular signals is that they have a shorter wavelength and therefore carry shorter-range signals. The longer wavelength TV spectrum signals allow a signal to travel much farther. I’m proud to report that today, Microsoft's Redmond campus uses a trial White Space network to provide high-speed Internet at a range of over a mile.

Recently, I hosted a Minister of Communication on his tour of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, and during his trip, we had the opportunity to explore how countries can expand broadband access to rural areas using White Space technology—thanks to an informative conversation with Ranveer Chandra, a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research who is currently leading our White Space networking project. 

As an aside, prior to the White Space project, Ranveer developed VirtualWiFi, a virtualization architecture for wireless LAN (WLAN) cards, as part of his doctoral dissertation. The software is among the top five most-downloaded software products released by Microsoft Research and is also shipping as a feature in Windows 7. Ranveer has been invited to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to present his work, and spectrum regulators from India, China, Brazil, Singapore, and the U.S. (including the FCC chairman) have visited the Microsoft campus to see his deployment of the world's first urban White Space network.

In my time at Microsoft, I have worked with my Microsoft Research colleagues on solving tough technology challenges that have ranged from solving low-bandwidth, high-latency problems in battlefield operations to developing a successful proof-of-concept High Performance Computing cluster for a large government agency that wanted to create a single identity system for all of its citizens. It’s been a fascinating experience.

I could go on and on about all the amazing work that is coming out of Microsoft Research and its applications for the public sector. In case you’re interested, here are a few more projects from the Microsoft Research division that you may want to explore.

  • Seeking Solutions in Africa with HIV Research: Learn how Microsoft is cataloging fragments of the HIV virus that are vulnerable to attack by the immune system
  • ChronoZoom: A community project dedicated to visualizing the history of everything: the cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity
  • FetchClimate: A fast, intelligent climate data retrieval service that is built on Microsoft  Azure technology

For even more information, see highlights from our TechFest 2012 event where we showcase compelling research projects from Microsoft Research labs around the world.

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Alan Merrihew
Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Alan Merrihew | Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

As chief technology strategist for the government team, Alan regularly engages with senior government officials and policy makers worldwide to help them leverage technology to help make government more efficient and effective.