Microsoft researcher tackles forest data to fight climate change

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Microsoft researcher tackles forest data to fight climate change

Software behemoths like Microsoft could play a vital role in solving computational challenges to do with climate change.

According to ecologist Drew Purves, large software companies may be the few places with sufficient resources to tackle the computational challenges of environmental research.

Purves is a research scientist at Microsoft Research Cambridge whose recent work has highlighted a need for new computer models to better predict environmental change.

“These computational challenges are huge, and large software companies are one of the only places where we’re going to find the knowledge and resources to address them,” he told iTnews.

“I think a company like Microsoft has a serious responsibility to help and be a leader in this area,” he said.

Working with ecologist Stephen Pacala at Princeton University and research colleagues in Madrid, Spain, Purves has produced two research papers that were published this week in the international journal, Science.

The researchers suggest new computational data analysis techniques involving algorithms that rely on large numbers of calculations to make sense of ecological data sets.

The proposed number-crunching technique is expected to account for biodiversity, which typically has been neglected by other analytical models.

“Of course there are lots of these algorithms used every day in all kinds of fields [such as] actuaries or search engines, but we have developed some ideas for new algorithms that we think will be useful for ecology and, hopefully, in other areas,” Purves told iTnews.

The research is part of Microsoft’s recently-established Computational Science Research unit, which comprises ecologists, biologists, neuroscientists, mathematicians and computer scientists working together to tackle issues ranging from climate change to understanding how living things work.

For Purves, forest modelling builds on a childhood interest in programming, artificial life, evolutionary theory and ecology.

“Computer science is central to everything nowadays, not least the great engineering and scientific challenges of age,” he said.

“I think what makes environmental research simultaneously exciting and challenging is the variety of computational challenges it presents."
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