Friday, January 1, 2010

Environmental Mapping: from personal choices to global impact

Eyes on EarthImage by manybits via Flickr

In the not-so-far-away-future, we will be surrounded by “smart dust” — tiny digital sensors, strewn around the globe, gathering all sorts of information and communicating with powerful computer networks to monitor, measure and understand the physical world in new ways.

These tiny sensors could be embedded in identification badges or cloth, perhaps using resonant antenna structures of RFID sensors or other systems coated with various sensing films that will recognize specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs), biological and chemical agents with part-per-billion detection limits.
Wearable RFID sensors could detect not only airborne chemical agents alerting to the presence of environmental chemical agents, but also breath biomarkers serving as early signals to the presence of certain diseases such as diabetes or cancer and metabolic disorders.

Wondering where it's safe to swim in Europe? An initiative called Eye on Earth - Water Watch created by Microsoft and the European Environment Agency and powered by Bing will help you find out what water you can swim in without wondering if you're going to go home with more than just memories.

Want to keep an Eye on Earth?
From plankton blooming off the coast of Ireland, diminishing and increasing populations of plants and animals, satellite images of the planet could give a more vivid understanding of the world that surrounds us. Launched during the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, the interactive online Environmental Atlas of Europe initially focuses on visuals and stories from European countries.

Microsoft and EEA have previously collaborated on the Eye on Earth platform, which combines scientific information with on-the-ground local observations contributed by millions of users on topics such as water quality at more than 22,000 swimming sites in Europe. The AirWatch application provides real-time data on specific air pollutants from air-quality monitoring stations, as well as user-submitted descriptions of air quality in different areas. Much of the information is available through text messages as well as online. Future plans for Eye on Earth include tracking ground-level ozone, oil spills, biodiversity, and coastal erosion to create what the partnership calls "a global observatory for environmental change." Other available online tools include Danish MapMyClimate that allows people to understand the impact of their consumer habits on the environment; Project2Degrees, emissions-tracking software developed in partnership with the Clinton Foundation that allows city authorities to measure and reduce their emissions; Fiat eco:Drive, a dashboard tool that helps drivers improve their fuel efficiency; and Bend the Trend, a website where users around the world can pledge to make lifestyle changes that will have a positive impact on emissions reduction.

In addition to smart sensors, smart phones can provide more powerful capabilities combining human intelligence and the ability of phones to automatically record pictures and sounds, tagged with keywords, where and when information automatically uploaded to web sites

PEIR, the Personal Environmental Impact Report, is one of many online tools that allows to explore and share how you impact the environment and how the environment impacts you.
This project involves collecting travel, time and location data from mobile phones feed into Web databases to calculate an individual’s personal environmental impact and exposure to pollutants. Another tool -, in cooperation with the National Park Service, uses a smartphone application to identify, photograph and track the advance of invasive plants, like Harding grass and poison hemlock, which can crowd out local species and undermine biodiversity.

Deborah Estrin, a computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles and her colleagues at the university’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing have designed several projects that use cellphones and people in data-gathering and analysis. Cellphones, they say, are versatile data collectors and are becoming more powerful all the time — with cameras, GPS, accelerometers and Internet connectivity. Their work is at the forefront of an emerging field called participatory sensing.

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