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Preserving Latin America’s Wildlife

April 22, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

In the late 1800s, the guanaco, a close relative of the llama, was hunted to near extinction. As we mark this year’s Earth Day (April 22), I want to share my excitement about a new tool that looks to make the future a little brighter for the guanaco and other threatened species in Latin America. That new tool is LiveANDES (Advanced Network for the Distribution of Endangered Species).

Developed by a partnership among researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, the LACCIR (Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research) Virtual Institute, and Microsoft Research, LiveANDES is designed to collect, house, and analyze data about Latin America’s wildlife—data that could prove vital to the preservation of the region’s rich but increasingly threatened biodiversity, which has suffered grievously from loss of habitat and climate change.

Mariano de la Maza, a wildlife officer in Chile’s Parks and Protected Areas Service, sees this decline on a daily basis. “The main problems of the Chilean forest are habitat loss and the fragmentation and degradation of native forests,” he says.

LiveANDES begins with field observations, made not just by wildlife biologists and park rangers but by “citizen scientists,” including hikers, eco-tourists, and other nature enthusiasts. As Cristian Bonacic, director of the wildlife laboratory at Pontifical Catholic University, notes, “When people go to the wild, they can encounter an endangered animal by chance.” These chance encounters can provide extremely valuable information about the location and status of threatened and endangered wildlife.

LiveANDES mobile phone appAll that’s needed is a smartphone equipped with the LiveANDES app. Imagine you’re hiking in the Chilean countryside, and you think you’ve spotted a rare species. You simply take its picture with your smartphone and upload the picture and any sighting comments into LiveANDES. Your photo and annotations, along with the phone’s recognition of your geographical location and a time stamp, are then logged into the LiveANDES database, ready for parsing by the university team.

Once processed, the data becomes available to scientists locally and around the world, as well as to the public, in both Spanish and English. Bonacic praises LiveANDES for the way it helps researchers “share that information with the scientific community, park rangers, and people at large.”

Knowing where and under what circumstances a threatened species is living can help biologists devise strategies to stabilize and, one hopes, restore these vulnerable populations. Moreover, the information gathered in LiveANDES also will help keep the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of endangered and threatened species accurate, complete, and up-to-date.

The LiveANDES platform was built by using Microsoft technologies, including Windows Phone, Microsoft SQL Server data management software, and Bing Maps for locating and visualizing the animals, and the Microsoft .NET Framework for programming. It not only houses data about Latin America’s wildlife, including photographs, audio and video recordings, and location and sighting data, but it also makes parsing huge volumes of data manageable for researchers.

According to Ignacio Casas, the executive director of LACCIR, LiveANDES integrates with the fourth paradigm, a foundational concept of eScience, in which data-intensive computing facilitates scientific discovery. LiveANDES is designed to make parsing the huge volumes of data recorded manageable for researchers.

Bonacic and his colleagues look forward to receiving a barrage of wildlife data from rangers, biologists, and, of course, citizen scientists. Thanks to LiveANDES, this data deluge will be manageable and actionable.

The I am inspired by this project, as it tackles an extremely challenging environmental problem, which is the rapid decline of important elements of our natural heritage. Each animal species is an important piece of a puzzle, and each citizen scientist and researcher can play a crucial role in the preservation of endangered species for the next generation. I’m hopeful that LiveANDES will help the guanaco and other vulnerable species survive to see Earth Day 2113!

Jaime Puente, Director, Latin America and the Caribbean, Microsoft Research Connections

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