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Conservation at Microsoft

We develop and accelerate better, predictive, conservation science, tools and technologies in areas of societal importance. We aim to provide scientific support for effective environmental solutions for key decision makers, from the boardroom to governments makers. We are committed to leveraging the unique position our group occupies to influence how individuals and nations approach and tackle issues such as natural resource scarcity and biodiversity loss.

Science

Our work is driven by the urgent need for policy-defining science. Much of the work we do within the Conservation at Microsoft research unit is towards predictive methods needed to sustain the rich diversity of life on earth. We focus on five key components:

1. Understanding species ecology and distribution: Our work in this area currently centres on new methods and models for estimating the total number of species, where those species are to be found, and the traits those species possess that are likely to be of importance for key ecosystem services.

2. Advancing the science and tools to estimate species risk of extinction: We are a proud partner of the IUCN, the world leading organization on biodiversity science and policy. We help the IUCN in scientific and technical roles, expanding and updating the Red List on Threatened Species, the most authoritative global database on species' risk of extinction.

3. Understanding how and why biodiversity is changing around the world: We are working on new models for estimating species invasion and extinction rates, and working to collect the data and models on the drivers of these processes.

4. Decision support for conservation: We work to determine the most effective actions to redress the underlying causes of biodiversity decline based on findings from our research. We ask not only what we can do about current causes of biodiversity decline, but provide impact estimates of conservation interventions to guide future policy planning.

5. Understanding the implications of biodiversity loss: We work to measure the economic and societal benefits from biodiversity (i.e., ecosystem services or ‘natural capital’), and seek to predict how those benefits might change under future scenarios of policy interventions.

6. Indicators of biodiversity: Under the framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity, countries have committed to halt the current biodiversity crisis by signing the Aichi 2020 targets. Indicators are required to monitor progress towards these targets. We are developing new modelling platforms to calculate two major policy-relevant biodiversity indicators, the Red List Index and the Living Planet Index.


Policy

We streamline and maximize the policy impact of our work by collaborating closely with two distinct global leaders in the conservation policy space: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the United Nation’s Environmental Program’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

The IUCN is the oldest and largest environmental organization and one consistently looked to for biodiversity and environmental science advice by national and international governments. The IUCN ‘helps the world find pragmatic solutions to pressing environment and development challenges’ and provides one of the world’s most important datasets on biodiversity, the Red List of Threatened Species. The Red List is a global repository of the current threat status of the world’s biodiversity. This, combined with their involvement with the World Database on Protected Areas, make the IUCN an important component of the Conventional on Biological Diversity’s ability to meet the internationally agreed CBD 2020 Targets. We are proud to be the 10th, and first ever corporate,'Red List Partners', providing scientific and technical support on mapping distribution of species and threats to biodiversity and on evaluating species risk of extinction. This allows our science to shape some of the world’s most important policy.

UNEP-WCMC serves as the United Nations Environment Program’s specialist biodiversity assessment arm. UNEP-WCMC evaluates and highlights the many values of biodiversity and puts authoritative biodiversity knowledge at the centre of decision-making. The Computational Ecology and Environmental Sciences group has jointly appointed three postdoctoral scientists with WCMC, all working on the ‘Madingley Model’, a predictive global model of ecosystem structure and function. In the Conservation at Microsoft unit we focus on identifying key outputs from the model to best inform conservation policy. We serve various advisory roles across UNEP-WCMC in key initiatives, e.g. in the emerging IUCN – WCMC task force on Key Biodiversity Areas, the development of ProtectedPlanet.net, the global face of the World Database on Protected Areas.

Tools & Technology

Much of conservation science and policy relies on scarce biodiversity data. At Microsoft Research, we understand just how transformative computational technology can be, and the Conservation at Microsoft research unit will be providing the tools and technology to simplify and empower the process of biodiversity monitoring and assessment and aid biodiversity conservation decision-making.

Technology for Nature: We realize that revolutionizing the monitoring of biodiversity through technology is a task larger than our group can approach alone. As such, much of Conservation at Microsoft’s work in this space falls under the auspices of a new Technology for Nature (TfN) Unit – a joint collaboration between Microsoft Research, the Zoological Society of London, and University College London. The objective of TfN is to scale up the global conservation response through innovations in technology for nature. In establishing the unit we have created a group specializing in the hardware and software necessary to allow effective biodiversity monitoring. Scientists and engineers in the group work specifically on distributed systems for autonomously monitoring biodiversity through acoustic and visual sensors. Every effort will be made to effectively link the strengths of computational automation, ‘crowd power’, and expert opinion. The resources brought together by this collaboration between the three organizations are unprecedented. ZSL brings a zoo for technology testing and conservation programs around the world. MSR and UCL provide access to world-class scientists and facilities for designing and building engineered solutions.

Example Projects

Mataki: Our scientists have developed cutting-edge technology for tracking animals via GPS, packing sophisticated software into one of the smallest devices on the market, and at a price-point that makes the power of GPS tracking available to all.

A Computer Vision for Conservation: We are working with one of the world’s leading computer vision teams here at Microsoft Research to automatically identify species in still and video camera recordings, unlocking the wealth of information being captured every day by camera traps around the world and linking this directly into ZSL’s InstantWild Application.

Project Swavesey: Most conservation data are spatial in nature, requiring geospatial mapping and analysis. Most conservation organizations lack the time and resources to build these types of applications, although they desperately need them. We responded to this problem by building a generic solution so that other organizations will be able to replicate our efforts in just a fraction of time.