Keeping an Eye on the Environment From the Cloud

BRUSSELS — April 19, 2010 — Before Ludo De Bock leaves his house near Brussels each day, he checks a Web site called Eye on Earth. He’s not looking for a traffic or weather report, but for the day’s air quality rating. On days when there is high atmospheric pressure and little or no wind, particulates and ozone from diesel engines can make it dangerous to do such simple things as going for a run — especially for those with allergies, asthma or other breathing problems.

De Bock is more than an avid fan of the Eye on Earth site, which offers localized air and water quality statistics for 32 European countries and presents it in a visual format using Microsoft Bing Maps. He’s partly responsible for its existence. De Bock is Microsoft’s senior director for the European Union and NATO countries, and the Web site is the result of a collaboration between the European Environment Agency (EEA) and Microsoft that uses cloud-computing technology to gather and display information about air and water pollution.

When users open the Eye on Earth site, they are offered a high-resolution, “zoomable” map from which they can choose the city or precise location they’re interested in. For each location, the air and water are rated according to both “official” measurements and comments submitted by users. To make it easy to share the information with friends, links are provided to Twitter, Facebook and Windows Live Spaces.

Launched in May 2008, Water Watch tracks water quality across Europe’s beaches. Swimming water cleanliness can be a major public health issue. Exposure to improperly treated sewage, for example, can cause serious diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis or encephalitis. Until now, people in Europe haven’t had an easy way to check the cleanliness of the water they plan to swim in.

WateWatch’s 22,000 monitoring points measure levels of bacteria and chemical pollutants that could make swimming hazardous. Depending on conditions, it assigns each location red (hazardous), yellow (sort of OK?) or green (safe) rating. People who have visited beaches can post comments about the cleanliness of those sites — or even how crowded they are and how they smell on any particular day.

At the Eye on Earth home page, visitors can click on links to sensors that show water or air quality at many locations across Europe.

Last November, the EEA added Air Watch to the Eye on Earth site. Air Watch tracks and monitors the levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, three substances that are known to cause shortness of breath, lung inflammation and other breathing problems. Like Water Watch, Air Watch allows governments, policymakers and individuals to track and monitor air purity across Europe as measured at 1,000 monitoring stations that report their readings every two hours. This is the first time the EEA has been able to provide EU citizens with up-to-date information on air quality.

It’s also the fastest announcement mechanism available. “On high-smog days, the Belgian authorities issue alerts, but because the Eye on Earth site is updated every two hours, it often reflects hazardous conditions before the authorities are able to issue their public warnings,” says De Bock.

Both Air Watch and Water Watch use interactive maps based on the Microsoft Bing Maps platform, are available in 25 languages and can be accessed via mobile smartphones.

In addition to helping Europe’s 500 million citizens stay healthy, the Eye on Earth site enables individuals, government officials, nonprofit organizations and academics to make informed decisions about improving the environment. “At the very least, it creates a greater awareness of how precarious the environment is in certain parts of Europe,” says De Bock. “At best, it may help identify problem areas faster and fuel a demand for policy changes that will reduce pollution.”

“With Eye on Earth, the EEA and Microsoft bring complex strands of information together into a single, simple-to-use and easy-to-understand application,” says Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA. “Reliable and accessible environmental information is key to sound decisions, both for policymakers in formulating European policies and for citizens who want to make a difference by adopting environment-friendly practices.”

“Eye on Earth delivers information in a way that the public can really understand,” says Professor Geoffrey Lipman, a spokesperson with the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Cloud Offers Scalability and Agility

Collecting and disseminating up-to-date environmental information in all 32 countries was a formidable undertaking. The primary challenge was to develop a highly scalable, always-available platform that would be able to grow and shrink with seasonal changes in usage.

To accommodate these demands Microsoft and the EEA chose to build Eye on Earth as a cloud-based service hosted on Microsoft’s Windows Azure and SQL Azure platforms. Windows Azure provides a scalable hosting and services management environment for cloud applications. It enables the EEA to quickly and easily build, deploy and manage incremental updates and enhancements to the Eye on Earth site, which as of May will be hosted in a Microsoft datacenter. SQL Azure, a relational database for the cloud, makes possible the fast retrieval of location-based information.

Basing Eye on Earth in the cloud is also a “greener” and less expensive approach than hosting the site on-premises, says De Bock. “This is the sort of site that can have wide swings in usage, depending upon the season, the day of the week and the weather conditions,” he says. “To host it on-premises would require installing enough servers to avoid overloads during periods of peak usage. That means much of that capacity would sit idle most of the time, a tremendous waste of capital investment. Hosting it in a Microsoft cloud-based datacenter avoids this inefficiency, as well as its associated energy usage and carbon emissions.”

Last summer, Eye on Earth hosted more than 100,000 visitors per month.

Next Steps

De Bock hopes to continue expanding the Eye on Earth project. Future phases could focus on areas such as biodiversity or noise pollution. Eventually, he envisions offering Europeans always-current snapshots of their entire local biospheres. “Perhaps someday people might even use these interactive report cards to decide where they want to live,” he says.

The EEA has begun evangelizing the Eye on Earth concept in other parts of the world. The United Nations Environment Programme, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Washington are among the organizations that have expressed interest.

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