The Eye on Earth (EOE) network has garnered a great deal of praise for providing federal geospatial data openly and transparently, including kudos around the Rio+20 event in Rio this Spring. EOE started out as a joint project of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and Microsoft. Two individuals formulated the idea: Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, and Ludo De Bock, Senior Director for the European Union and NATO for Microsoft Corporation. Special correspondent Matteo Luccio spoke with Shoshanna Budzianowski, Partner Group Program Manager, Business Platform Group, Microsoft Corporation.
Luccio: What do you do at Microsoft? How did you get involved with the Eye on Earth (EOE) Network?
Budzianowski: I am a Partner Program Manager at Microsoft. I do strategy and partner development for the Information Services team in the Data Platform Group. I also run an incubation team and an incubation called SQL Azure Labs. I do development, I scale out software, and I promote SQL Azure and Windows Azure. Through this process, I have educated myself on many of the environmental issues that are now first and foremost on our minds. I’ve now become an advocate not only for Microsoft technology but also for creating sustainable environmental solutions. I am neither a scientist nor an advocate of green solutions; I am a technologist. When I look at environmental issues, a lot of the problem is to figure out how to baseline what we have now and let the world share it, so that we can create science that measures against that baseline. With the EOE Network we’ve made it possible not only to create that baseline but also to share it with every citizen in the world in virtually every language. I look at this as a science problem and an engineering problem.
Luccio: How did the project start?
Budzianowski: EOE started out as a joint project of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and Microsoft. Two individuals formulated the idea: Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the EEA, and Ludo De Bock, Senior Director for the European Union and NATO for Microsoft Corporation. Ludo, who works out of Belgium, is very environmentally conscious and wanted to help create a solution with the EEA that could provide information to European citizens about their environment. When this solution was first developed, in 2007, there was no other solution like this. There was pent up demand for information about the environment from European Union citizens, but no way of conveying that information. We first developed EOE at Microsoft and released it in May 2008, with Water Watch. It takes data from 22,000 monitoring stations across Europe and publishes it in the application, so that citizens can see the water quality and then provide their own assessment of the water quality. That was wildly successful, to the point that we at Microsoft decided to continue to support the solution. The next year, we added Air Watch to the solution, which was released in November 2009. That takes data from more than 1,000 air quality monitoring stations across Europe and makes it available to citizens as well.
Luccio: Who funds the project?
Budzianowski: The EEA has some funding for developing the solution. The majority of the funding — including for the last version — has come from Microsoft, which has continued to invest in it.
Luccio: How did EOE develop into the EOE Network? What was your role?
Budzianowski:My role in this is interesting. The original EOE solution was developed on a Microsoft technology stack. What we found by the time we got to Air Watch was that we needed the ability to create not just a Web site with some information ingested, but a solution that we could replicate and expand to a global solution. I am part of the product development team at Microsoft that produces our cloud database product, called SQL Azure, and our database products, such as SQL Server. So, we have a very long history of creating enterprise-scale, highly complex database systems. My team got involved because we ran a bunch of incubation projects for new cloud services and we decided to take on this project as a prototype for what we thought would be a cloud application. We started to look at how people — scientists, government organizations, and citizens — interact with the system. Where do they store their data? How do they get it shared out to the rest of the world? We ended up going through an entire start-up style incubation process that was not only at the scale of infrastructure for the solution, but, really, focused on how we could make a solution more relevant to everybody who participated in the ecosystem. That ecosystem includes government officials, policy makers, and agencies like the EEA, who are essentially the owners of the site now and responsible for the quality of the solutions on it. Then we wanted to develop a system that would allow other people — such as community organizations, citizen scientists, and professional scientists — to add their information into the system.
For the next version of EOE — we are now in v.3+ —we changed it from a custom solution to what is now called EOE Network. Water Watch and Air Watch were essentially custom solutions that were built on the Microsoft platform. So, to add a new watch, we had to go back into a development cycle that would last approximately three months and write custom code to create the map solution and apps. We spent about $300,000 developing Air Watch. That’s expensive! Many organizations cannot afford that. We decided that if we want everyone to be able to participate in this work we have to drive the participation cost down to practically zero and make sure that the platform will scale. So, instead of creating a custom solution, we now have in place EOE Network, which allows virtually anyone in the world to create environmental information solutions and share them for free. So, we switched from creating a custom solution to creating a platform.
Luccio: What was Esri’s role?
Budzianowski: My team and I developed the EOE Network with the help of Esri. When we were trying to figure out how to create the scaled-out platform, I was already working with Esri and some other partnership-style solutions for publishing environmental information. I was fully educated and aware of ArcGIS Online, which is a complete cloud-based solution based on Windows Azure. So, I invited Esri into this engagement with Microsoft and the EEA. It’s been just a boon for the solution, because we took the custom map solutions and decided that we could host them on ArcGIS Online. Also, because of the functionality and capability of ArcGIS Online, we are now able to allow people to create free map applications and then have them published into the EOE Network.
We recently re-designed EOE Network with Microsoft SharePoint. We did that because SharePoint, which most people think of as a document management system, can also be used to create Web-facing applications, with a whole content management system behind it. So now, instead of being a custom solution, the EOE Network uses SharePoint and ArcGIS, all hosted on Windows Azure and SQL Azure. It means that non-technical audiences can now use this platform without having to do custom development for it. The EEA now curates the EOE Network site. I go on it every day and find new content. I saw yesterday that they now have a new solution with NASA, using NASA satellites worldwide.
Luccio: Where is the data stored? Does Google have it, too?
Budzianowski: The data is submitted through ArcGIS Online to these map-based solutions that are created by scientific organizations and citizen organizations. It is also stored in ArcGIS Online, which happens to persist the data in a SQL Azure database. Esri is paying the bills for this solution created by citizen scientists. The data also remains in the hands of the scientists who created it. It is in many places; it could be in Google as well. I don’t follow closely whether these organizations are sharing their data with Google.
Luccio: How many data centers do you have?
Budzianowski: The data is hosted in Azure data centers worldwide. Esri owns the Azure account. I am not privy to how many data centers Esri has rolled out ArcGIS online, but I think that it has been rolled out to our data centers across the world. At Microsoft, we don’t talk about how many cloud data centers we have internationally, but I think that there is, or soon will be, one in every continent. These are Microsoft data centers that host ArcGIS Online.
Luccio: What is ArcGIS Online?
Budzianowski: ArcGIS Online is a service running on the Azure platform, which is deployed across the world. We like to think of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Essentially, you give us a virtual machine and we’ll host it in our data center for you and you own everything in the virtual machine. With Platform as a Service (PaaS), we give you a cloud operating system and invite you to deploy your application on it. Esri used our cloud operating system to write ArcGIS Online. It is a Software as a Service (SaaS), meaning that you don’t really care how or where it is built or where it is deployed. Users access the service through a Web site or a URL.
Luccio: There are ways in which you could be partners with Google and ways in which you are natural competitors…
Budzianowski: We are base-lining the environmental conditions for the Earth right now. So, I’d like think that the EEA is the primary advocate and evangelist for this solution and they could work with Google to have them publish this data. I have no problem with that. I am a technologist and an engineer, so I am not likely to go create that relationship, but there is nothing keeping them from it. The EOE Network was originally launched at an EOE summit in Abu Dhabi in December. We re-launched it at Rio +20, a few months ago. It is early enough in its creation that all the relationships that need to be in place aren’t there, but people are pretty excited about the solution. So, I think that over time we may actually see a stronger relationship with Google Earth. It is all for the good of the planet.
Luccio: Who will provide the content? How will you handle quality control and edits?
Budzianowski: We expect governments, the scientific community, certified citizen scientists, industry, NGOs, and even commercial organizations and independent software vendors (ISVs) to provide data to the system. The EEA administers the Network. Anyone can submit a map-based solution for publication, but they will only be published once they are certified by the EEA, which takes quality control responsibility for the maps that are published on its site. For the information that goes up there, it tends to work with trusted organizations, such as NASA, and trusted scientific communities. We’ve been very careful to insure that we understand who owns the data and where it comes from. The crowd-sourced data that is part of the solution is always rendered separately, so that you know when it comes from the crowd and you know when it is published by the scientific community. If you go up to any of the air, water, or noise watches, you find ratings from monitoring stations and separate ratings submitted by citizens that may have different opinions on the subject. We’ve been very careful about making sure that there is a distinction between those two different data types. Over time, crowd-sourced data might become buried in environmental data. However, it has to be statistically significant and you need to have a very active citizen scientist community around it. Now, there are some citizen scientist groups and scientists — it could even be school teachers around the world — who can be certified by the EEA to submit solutions to this site. So far, the solutions that I’ve seen that have been submitted to the site are only from scientific organizations. There’s a role for everyone on the site, but there is also a role for making sure that you understand who owns the data and where it comes from.
Luccio: How many people staff the project?
Budzianowski: Esri and Microsoft are supporting this solution on top of our technology base. Probably a couple of thousand people at Microsoft helped to build the technology base. My team took created this solution on top of Microsoft and Esri platforms. For some of it we used contractors, for some of it we used our internal development staff. We are not dedicated full time to this solution, but we had about four people on it for the last year. In the past, Microsoft has dedicated more people, on and off. Likewise, Esri has had just a couple of engineers who have customized ArcGIS Online. Mostly, we’ve built these features into our platform. The EEA, under Jacqueline McGlade, has a team of people creating these solutions. I have met four or five of them numerous times. It is hard to measure how many people work on this project because it is part of our daily work. If you were to ask me how many people we’ve had in total on the solution over time, I’d say probably about five, building on each of our platforms.