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Microsoft events — the year ahead – The Official Microsoft Blog

Empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more is a 7 billion-person mission that we don’t take lightly. None of us at Microsoft could ever hope to reach that objective without a vast set of partnerships with curious and passionate people who seek to deeply understand technology and its power to transform individuals, businesses and industries. Facilitating connections, sharing our technologies and partnering to create solutions to real-world challenges is why we create the many Microsoft event experiences we host around the world.

Microsoft event experiences are designed to benefit specific audiences and structured to support clear objectives. We’re committed to closely aligning with all our partners, customers, and business and IT decision makers and connecting you with peers and industry leaders. To find out more about each event, visit our event website for details. Or, if you’re looking for a quick description of each event, read below to get a snapshot of our upcoming events.

Flagship events
IT professionals and developers
Microsoft Ignite — For IT professionals, decision makers, implementors, architects, developers and data professionals. This event provides opportunities to explore the latest tools, receive deep technical training and get specific questions answered by Microsoft experts. With more than 26,000 attendees who join to learn, connect and explore what Microsoft has to offer, this truly is the place where reality meets imagination. Orlando, Florida | Nov. 4-8, 2019

Developers
Microsoft Build — Where leading architects, developers, start-ups and student developers converge to focus on the latest tech trends and innovate for the future. We maintain our “produced by developers and for developers” mantra while inviting the next generation of developers to participate in the student zone. Seattle, Washington | May 19-21, 2020

Microsoft partners
Microsoft Business Applications Summit — An annual opportunity to bring together a community of Microsoft customers and partners in roles that include power users, business analysts, evangelists, implementers and technical architects. This event provides a forum to learn how Microsoft’s end-to-end Dynamics 365 and Power Platform can create and extend solutions to drive business success. Anaheim, California | April 20-21, 2020

Microsoft Inspire — Where Microsoft partners meet to connect and celebrate as one community at the close of Microsoft’s fiscal year. With hundreds of thousands of partners across the world, our partner ecosystem is stronger and more united than ever. We invite you to learn more about how Microsoft leaders are supporting our partners, and how partners can capitalize on the opportunities ahead. We’ve co-located our Microsoft sales kick-off event to build on our shared partnership philosophy. Las Vegas, Nevada | July 20-24, 2020

Regional tours

We started our regional tours for attendee convenience and to gauge how digital transformation is happening around the world. They’ve been a success on both fronts. This year we’re expanding to 30 markets for Microsoft Ignite The Tour and starting Microsoft Envision I The Tour in seven cities. Check out one of the stops on our regional tours in a city near you.

IT professionals and developers
Microsoft Ignite The Tour — We are bringing the best of Microsoft Ignite to you by traveling to 30 cities around the world for both ease of access and for the robust localized content for these distinct markets. Join us for in-depth learning and experiences in a free, two-day format that allows IT professionals and developers to learn new ways to build solutions, migrate, and manage infrastructure and connect with local industry leaders and peers. Visit Microsoft Ignite The Tour for locations and dates.

Business decision makers
Microsoft Envision | The Tour — An invitation-only, single-day event held in multiple cities around the world. With a global focus, this summit allows members of the C-suite to focus on challenges and trends that are changing the way organizations do business. Taking inspiration from our CEO Summit, this conference is designed to give leaders a chance to step back and learn about smart strategies to tackle emerging issues, power new efficiencies and build new business models and revenue streams. Visit Microsoft Envision I The Tour for locations and dates.

Digital learning

For those unable to make it in person or who are looking to quickly skill up on a particular topic, we offer digital learning options. Watch training sessions and event keynote sessions at any time. View multiple modules or choose a learning path tailored to today’s developer and technology masterminds that are designed to prepare you for industry-recognized Microsoft certifications.

Additional events

We’re just scratching the surface of the full picture of events that Microsoft has to offer. If you don’t find what you are looking for here, visit our full global events catalog for a list of events in your region and possibly your own city. These are events that are organized around specific product offerings and located in easily accessible locations with a wide range of class levels offered.

We invite everyone to join us to learn and grow, join us to connect with your peers, join us to get the answers you need so that you can deliver the solutions that can help propel your digital transformation. Visit our events website of flagship and regional events, and we look forward to seeing you in the year ahead.

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Blockchain solutions — and disruption — pondered at EmTech 2018

CAMBRIDGE — The World Bank, one of the most powerful financial institutions on the planet, is experimenting with blockchain as a tool to track agricultural goods and raise capital.

Gideon Lichfield, the editor in chief of the MIT Technology Review, found some irony in that.

“This technology that was invented by somebody whose true identity we still don’t know — Satoshi Nakamoto — specifically to take power away from financial institutions and put currency in the hands of the people is now being used by the ultimate, central, financial institution,” Lichfield told an audience at EmTech 2018, a conference focused on big data, artificial intelligence and technology.

The crowd gathered at MIT’s Media Lab had just heard from two thinkers in the increasingly mainstream field of blockchain, a method of distributed ledgers that can dramatically alter how transactions are made and verified.

Ledgers themselves date back to cuneiform records etched into tablets 7,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization, said Michael Casey, an author and senior advisor to the Digital Currency Initiative at Media Lab. If blockchain solutions decentralize financial ledgers in the future, that change could disrupt the flow of money into the world’s financial hubs. Using the 21st century version of the ledger, governments and other institutions could invest the money they save on financing in other causes.

The lack of trust in the record-keeping function has a huge impact on the world.
Michael Caseysenior advisor to the Digital Currency Initiative, MIT Media Lab

“If they could raise money more cheaply, you’d have a lot more funds to put into education, to put into health,” Casey said. “Why should [the cost of financing] go into the hands of a large investment bank when it could be going back to the poor?”

Blockchain solutions could also help the so-called underbanked and unbanked gain access to financial services. Distributed ledgers accrue credibility by replicating transaction records across a network of computers. Casey said that credibility could benefit people in places like Nairobi, Kenya, who have difficulty leveraging value from their real estate because banks distrust their property records.

“The lack of trust in the record-keeping function has a huge impact on the world,” he said.

The World Bank's Prema Shrikrishna and MIT Media Lab's Michael Casey discuss blockchain's potential at EmTech 2018.
The World Bank’s Prema Shrikrishna and MIT Media Lab’s Michael Casey discuss blockchain’s potential to provide a new model of trust at EmTech 2018.

World Bank experiments with blockchain solutions

The altruistic applications of blockchain were a focus of Casey’s EmTech talk with Prema Shrikrishna, who works on blockchain projects at World Bank Group.

Teaming up with the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank is currently designing a blockchain architecture to track oil palm from the farm to mills, where it becomes palm oil — an agricultural staple in everything from chocolate to candles. By tracking the origin of the raw material, most of which is produced in Indonesia, blockchain could reward farmers for sustainable practices, according to Shrikrishna.

Among other World Bank experiments with blockchain: 

Education. The World Bank is developing a system for rewarding students playing an educational game called Evoke, which is designed to teach skills for success in modern society, Shrikrishna said.

Vaccine management. In December, Oleg Kucheryavenko, a public health professional who works with the World Bank, wrote on the institution’s blog that blockchain could provide a “cost-effective solution” for vaccine distribution. Vaccines have a shelf-life, Kucheryavenko wrote, and the supply chain is “too complex to be taken for granted, with vaccines changing ownership from manufacturers to distributors, re-packagers and wholesalers before reaching its destination.”

Financing. In August, the World Bank sold blockchain-enabled bonds through the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which raised about $80.5 million, according to Reuters.

Blockchain’s best use cases

Members of the audience at the talk had varying aspirations for blockchain’s use.

Rahul Panicker, chief innovation officer at Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which focuses on technological solutions to large-scale societal problems, believes blockchain can be harnessed for humanitarian causes.

“It was very encouraging to see an organization like the World Bank being willing to look at these frontier technologies, and especially a technology like blockchain that has the ability to reduce friction in the financial system,” said Panicker, after attending the talk. “The whole purpose of blockchain is actually to minimize the burden of trust. The cost of trust is especially high in the developing world, so the fact that organizations like the World Bank are willing to look at this can mean big things for the disempowered.”

Tom Hennessey, an attendee, posited that financial settlement was the most readily available application.

Tomas Jansen, of Belgium’s Federal Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers, said a lot of refugees arrive in Europe without identification papers because they belong to a marginalized group or lost their documents. Jansen wanted to hear ideas from the blockchain experts on how to address those problems.

Shrikrishna sidestepped the political ramifications, but she noted that World Bank has a program called Identification for Development that is working on integrating ID databases and creating an identity that would be “portable across borders.”

She said the World Bank is “technology agnostic” in seeking to solve problems around the globe, and stressed that the financial institution’s approach with blockchain has been both “very cautious” and “very experimental.”

Blockchain disruption

World Bank is hardly alone in its exploration of blockchain solutions to solve problems and change how business is done. Analysts expect blockchain to have a major impact on businesses, which are eyeing its potential to manage supply chains, verify documents, and trade securities. The firm Gartner estimates blockchain will add $3.1 trillion to the world economy by 2030. Some industry sectors have been quicker than others to start experimenting.

Describing blockchain as at an “inflection point,” a recent report by the consultancy Deloitte found that financial services executives are “leading the way in using blockchain to reexamine processes and functions that have remained static for decades,” and emerging players are using blockchain to challenge traditional business models.

Meanwhile, blockchain’s most developed use case — bitcoin — is driving most of the interest in the technology, while taking those invested in the cryptocurrency on a roller coaster ride.

So far development of a “stable coin” has been a “difficult nut to crack,” according to Casey, who used to cover currencies for The Wall Street Journal.

To stabilize the tender, a coin could be pegged to other metrics, or it could be backed by a reserve of funds to try to create more stability, Casey said. One way or another, he predicted, developers will find success.

“Something’s going to work. Something’s going to break as well,” Casey said.

Beyond our four walls: How Microsoft is accelerating sustainability progress – Microsoft on the Issues

Our planet is changing — sea levels are rising, weather is becoming more extreme and our natural resources are being depleted faster than the earth’s ecosystems can restore them. These changes pose serious threats to the future of all life on our tiny blue dot, and they challenge us to find new solutions, work together and leverage the diversity of human potential to help right the course.

The good news is that progress is being made across the globe, and non-state actors, from cities to companies to individual citizens, are setting bold commitments and accelerating their work on climate change. But it’s also clear that we all must raise our ambitions, couple that with action and work more swiftly than ever.

At Microsoft, we fully understand and embrace this challenge. That is why, this week, at the Global Climate Action Summit, Microsoft is sharing our vision for a sustainable future — one where everyone everywhere is experiencing and deploying the power of technology to help address climate change and build a more resilient future. We are optimistic about what progress can be made because we are already seeing results of this technology-first enablement approach.

Today, we are unveiling five new tools, partnerships and the results of pilot projects that are already reducing emissions in manufacturing and advancing environmental research and showing immense potential to disrupt the building and energy sectors for a lower-emission future.

These include:

  • A new, open-source tool to find, use and incentivize lower-carbon building materials: To create low-carbon buildings, we need to choose low-carbon building materials. But right now, choosing these materials is challenging because the data is not readily available and what we do have lacks transparency to ensure it’s accurate. We are the first large corporate user of a new tool to track the carbon emissions of raw building materials, introduced by Skanska and supported by the University of Washington Carbon Leadership Forum, Interface and C-Change Labs, called the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3). We’ll use this in our new campus remodel. Our early estimates are that a low-carbon building in Seattle has approximately half the carbon emissions of an average building, so this could have a substantial impact on reducing carbon emissions in our remodel and eventually the entire built environment. We’re proud to not only be piloting it, but that this open-source tool is also running on Microsoft Azure.
  • The results of a “factory of the future” and solar-panel deployment at one of our largest suppliers of China: We partnered with our supplier’s management team to develop and install an energy-smart building solution running on Microsoft Azure to monitor and address issues as they emerge, saving energy and money. Additionally, Microsoft funded a solar panel installation, which generated more than 250,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the past fiscal year. This integrated solution is estimated to reduce emissions by approximately 3 million pounds a year.

The successful pilot of a grid-interactive energy storage battery: ​Solving storage is a critical piece of transforming the energy sector. That is why we’re excited to share the results of a new pilot in Virginia, in partnership with Eaton and PJM Interconnection. We used a battery that typically sits in our datacenter as a backup system, hooked it up to the grid to receive signals about when to take in power, when to store it and when to discharge to support the reliability of the system and integration of renewable energy. With thousands of batteries as part of our backup power systems at our datacenters, this pilot has the potential to rapidly scale storage solutions, allowing datacenters to smooth out the unpredictability of wind and solar.

  • New grantees and results from our AI for Earth program: Since we first introduced this grant, training and innovation program last year, we’ve experienced 200 percent growth. We are now supporting 137 grantees in more than 40 countries around the world, as well as doubling the number of larger featured projects we support. We’ve seen early results, too, allowing many people outside the grant program to benefit from our work, allowing us to process more than 10 trillion pixels in ten minutes and less than $50.
  • New LinkedIn online training module for sustainability, the Sustainable Learning Path: LinkedIn is providing new training courses to enable people everywhere to learn and gain job skills to participate in the clean energy economy and low-carbon future. The Sustainable Learning Path offers six hours of expert-created content; initial courses include an overview of sustainability strategies and introductions to LEED credentials and sustainable design. All six courses are unlocked until the end of October, in celebration of the Global Climate Action Summit, and can be accessed here.

While these are just the first proof points of the potential of technology to accelerate the pace of change beyond our four walls, they build on decades of sustainability progress within our operations.  These include operating 100 percent carbon neutral since 2012, purchasing more than 1 gigawatt of renewable energy on three continents, committing to reduce our operational carbon footprint by 75 percent by 2030, and a host of other initiatives. As meaningful as this operational progress is, we know it’s not enough. As a global technology company, we have a responsibility and a tremendous opportunity to help change the course of our planet.

As we look to the future, we’ll realize this opportunity in a few ways. We will use our operations as a test bed for innovation and share new insights about what works. We will work with our customers and suppliers to drive efficiencies that lead to tangible carbon reductions. We will continue to increase access to cloud and AI tools, especially among climate researchers and conservation groups, and work together to develop new tools that can be deployed by others in the field.

We are not naïve. Technology is not a panacea. Time and resources are short, and the task immense. But we refuse to believe that it is insurmountable or too late to build a better future, and we are convinced that technology can play a pivotal role in enabling that progress.

That optimism is borne out of our experience, lessons learned and the drive to create a better future that is core to Microsoft. At GCAS, I will be joined by 10 Microsoft and LinkedIn sustainability leaders, who will be sharing more details about this approach and the news outlined at panel sessions throughout the week, showcasing some of our technology solutions at events we are hosting and supporting the effort with more than 50 employees volunteering their time at GCAS. We are also proud to be an official sponsor of GCAS.

You can find our Microsoft delegation at the following events during the summit, as well as many others throughout the week. And we encourage you to follow us @Microsoft_Green for a full view of our conference activities and engagements, and the official hashtags for news of the event at #GCAS2018 #StepUp 2018.

Find Microsoft at the Global Climate Action Summit — event highlights

September 11, 8:00 a.m. PT: Sustainable Food Services Panel (LinkedIn hosting)

September 12, 9:00 a.m. PT: We Are Still In Forum

 September 12, 2:00 p.m. PT: “Energy, Transportation & Innovation – a Conversation with U.S. Climate Alliance Governors & Business Leaders” (Microsoft hosting)

  • Speaker: Shelley McKinley, General Manager for Technology and Civic Responsibility at Microsoft
  • Watch the livestream: https://aka.ms/CEO_Governors_Live and use #USCAxGCAS to submit questions on Twitter during the event

September 13, 9:00 a.m. PT: World Economic Forum: 4th IR for Earth

  • Speaker: Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer, Microsoft

September 13, 1:30 p.m. PT: GCAS Breakout Session – “What We Eat and How It’s Grown: Food Systems and Climate”

September 13, 3:00 p.m. PT: Meeting the Paris Goal: Strategies for Carbon Neutrality (Microsoft hosting)

  • Speaker: Elizabeth Willmott, Carbon Program Lead

September 13, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. PT: We Are Still In Reception at Microsoft

September 14, 8:30 a.m. PT: Clean Energy in Emerging Markets (Microsoft hosting)

September 14, 11:00 a.m. PT: Climate Action Career Fair (LinkedIn hosting)

  • Speaker: Lucas Joppa, Chief Environmental Officer

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Back to School tips and tactics in August’s #MSFTEduChat TweetMeet |

It’s a big planet, so we don’t all go back to school at the same time. Sooner or later, though, students and educators inevitably head back to the classroom – hopefully with maximum momentum intact. The #MSFTEduChat TweetMeet of August is a great way to broaden your horizon to encompass different ideas, approaches and opinions about getting Back To School and hitting the ground running.

Our next #MSFTEduChat TweetMeet, starting on Tuesday, August 21, at 10:00 a.m. PDT (check your time zone here), will focus on good tips, tactics and ideas for heading Back to School with aplomb. (Sounds great, but what’s a TweetMeet?)

We’re still taking a global approach to the TweetMeet by offering 13 simultaneous language tracks for the event. This month we’re adding עִברִית (Hebrew), norsk (Norwegian), svenska (Swedish), Nederlands (Dutch) and Deutsch (German).

For each language track, we have one or more hosts to post the translated questions and respond to educators. We’re once again most grateful to all current and former hosts who are collaborating closely to provide this service.

The #TweetMeetXX hashtags for non-English languages are to be used together with #MSFTEduChat so that everyone can find the conversations back in their own language. For example: French-speaking people use the combination #TweetMeetFR #MSFTEduChat. English-speaking educators may all use #MSFTEduChat on its own.

Our #MSFTEduChat TweetMeet with Back to School tips is on Tuesday, August 21 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. PDT. Everyone is welcome to join. #BackToSchool Click To Tweet

Why join the #MSFTEduChat TweetMeets?

TweetMeets are monthly recurring Twitter conversations about themes relevant to educators, facilitated by Microsoft Education. The purpose of these events is to help professionals in education to learn from each other and inspire their students while they are preparing for their future. The TweetMeets also nurture personal learning networks among educators from across the globe.

Our hosts often use Flipgrid to share their excitement and thoughts around TweetMeet topics, and you’re welcome to participate above!

When and how can I join?

Join us Tuesday, August 21 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. PDT on Twitter using the hashtags#MSFTEduChat, #BackToSchool and #MicrosoftEDU (which you can always use to stay in touch with us). To find the event time for your specific location, use this time zone announcer.

How can I best prepare?

To prepare for the #MSFTEduChat TweetMeet, have a look at the questions we crafted this time.

You can also revisit our blog post, Back to School season gets easier with live tips and hands-on help from #MicrosoftEDU, and check out all event sessions and relevant resources from the Microsoft Educator Community: aka.ms/backtoschoollive2018

You can also catch up on the latest Back to School features for:

TweetMeet Questions

Time # Question
10:00 Ice Breaker What excites you about going back to school? Share an image, GIF or story.
10:06 1 What tools and strategies do you use to welcome new students?
10:15 2 What is your main focus this coming schoolyear?
10:24 3 How will you improve communication and collaboration?
10:33 4 How can technology help you meet your goals for this schoolyear?
10:42 5 What’s your best tip to create an inclusive classroom?
10:51 6 What new idea are you eager to try in the new schoolyear?
11:00 Takeaway Question Who or what has inspired you in today’s TweetMeet?

Hosts and coaches

Matching this month’s topic, we have invited 20 global educators to be our hosts. They can’t wait to engage with you and share ideas about Back to School. Check out their profiles and projects, follow them all on Twitter, and check their tweets in this Twitter list.

  • Can Van Truong @CanVanTruong (MIE Expert, Thach Xa junior high school teacher – Passionate about helping teachers use technology to empower students – Thach That, Ha Noi, Viet Nam)
  • Chandni Agarwal @chandni1910 (Head IT Department & teaching Computer Science Grade 12, National ICT Award Winner 2016, MIELA Winner, MIE Expert, Master Trainer, Cyber Security Resource Person, Love to implement Microsoft tools for Power to Empower – Delhi, India)
  • Elsabé Hart @HartElsabe (Former Teacher Ambassador and Microsoft Learning Consultant, Microsoft Certified Educator, MIE Master Trainer and MIE Expert. Minecraft Certified Trainer and an advocate for Game-Based Learning and 21st Century Learning Design – Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Erin Holland @erinjurisich (Digital Learning and Teaching Facilitator (DLTF) for Onslow County; passionate about helping teachers utilize technology that empowers students, both in the classroom and beyond! – North Carolina, USA)
  • Esam Baboukhan @soslearning (e-learning manager, lifelong learner and passionate advocate of meaningful, relevant and engaging teaching, learning and assessment – augmented through the use of accessible Edtech, MIE Expert – United Kingdom)
  • Ferdinand Stipberger @stipberger (MIE Expert, Middle School Teacher up to 10th grade – helping teachers and students to redefine their teaching and learning by using technology. I love all things the Microsoft Education world is about. – Neunburg v. Wald, Bavaria, Germany)
  • Jeni Long @jlo731 (Instructional Technologist with EMSISD. Passionate about technology integration and making learning accessible and fun for all! MIE Expert, MIE Trainer, & Flipgrid Ambassadors – Ft Worth, Texas, USA)
  • Kim Aarberg @KAarberg Teacher (I teach a global classroom. I’m a Flipgrid ambassador, Soundtrap expert and Google-certified teacher. Students learn in a collaborative environment. – Norway)
  • Kristina Johansson @johfam (Teacher. Interested in how technology can help us learn together. We don’t know what the future will be like! MIE Expert – Sweden)
  • Lucian Duma @lucianecurator (Teacher for SEN students, MIE Expert, MIE Trainer, Social Media Manager and Curator – Romania)
  • Luis Oliveira @loliveira55 (ELL HS Teacher, Tech Coach and Director, MIE Expert, MIE Trainer, Flipgrid Ambassador, Certified Newsela, Flipgrid, and Formative Educator. Passionate about providing a voice to all – Middletown, RI USA)
  • Manuela Valentim @fatela1971 (Interested in PBL and Digital Citizenship. Coordinator of UNESCO’s Projects, MIE Expert, Skype Master Teacher and Teach SDG’s Ambassador – Portugal)
  • Michel Girard @theMoat (Computer science teacher at DIIAGE, Office 365 administrator, MIE Expert, love sharing teaching practices and empowering students and teachers in their learning paths – Dijon, France)
  • Natalija Budinski @NatalijaNovta (Math teacher and External Adviser of Serbian Ministry of Education, My fields of interest are STEM disciplines, teaching math through origami and other art disciplines. MIE Expert, Skype Master Teacher, Scientix ambassador, blogger – Serbia)
  • Noa Lahav @supervxn (Working for the Innovative Tech Unit in the Ministry of Education, MIE Expert, Minecraft Global Mentor and Flipgrid Ambassador – Israel)
  • Rhea Flohr @RheaFlohr (Teacher in secondary school, EdTech Specialist, OneNote-lover. I am curious and I love to share my classroom experiences always wondering: could technology enhance learning? otherwise don’t use it! – Eindhoven, The Netherlands)
  • Sachelle Dorencamp @SachelleD (Digital Learning and Teaching Facilitator (DLTF) for Onslow County Schools. I am a fangirl of all things Microsoft Education and love helping teachers positively impact the lives of students. I am a Microsoft Innovative Educator and Microsoft Master Trainer – North Carolina, USA)
  • Sallee Clark @SalleeClark (Instructional Technologist with Eagle Mountain Saginaw ISD. As an MIE Expert & MIE Trainer, I am passionate about making learning accessible and fun for all! – Fort Worth, Texas, USA)
  • Thuy Nguyen @NguynTh10903062 (English teacher from Minh Dam High School, BRVT; MIE Expert; MIE Trainer; SDGs Ambassador. I love inspiring teachers and engaging students with technology in order to transform education together with the global educator community – Vietnam)
  • Vicent Ferrís @vicent_fd86 (Technology and Mathematics teacher in Maristas Algemesi. A lover of new technologies in education. I love innovating with my students. Microsoft Innovative Expert and MIE Trainer. Lover of Microsoft Teams – Valencia, Spain)

Finally, we’re introducing Francisco Texeira (@fcotexeira) to help us coordinate the TweetMeet. He is a former TweetMeet host himself and has already been assisting hosts in their preparations for the event. Francisco is a multilingual high school teacher and IT coordinator based in Spain and very passionate about professional development. Thanks for joining us!

What are #MSFTEduChat TweetMeets?

Every month Microsoft Education organizes social events on Twitter targeted at educators globally. The hashtag we use is #MSFTEduChat. A team of topic specialists and international MIE Expert teachers prepare and host these TweetMeets together. Our team of educator hosts first crafts several questions around a certain topic. Then, before the event, they share these questions on social media. Combined with a range of resources, a blog post and background information about the events, this allows all participants to prepare themselves to the full. Afterwards we make an archive available of the most notable tweets and resources shared during the event.

The #MSFTduChat event time is 10:00 a.m. PT. If this time isn’t convenient for you, please follow your local channel or even consider hosting your own #MSFTEduChat in your country and language. Please connect with TweetMeet organizer Marjolein Hoekstra @OneNoteC on Twitter for more info on hosting in your language and time that works best for the educators and MIE Experts in your country.

Five lessons on reaching 1 billion people living with disabilities

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. Whether or not we succeed depends on our ability to create an inclusive company culture, deliver inclusive products for our customers and show up to the world in an inclusive way.

Recently I spoke at Microsoft’s Ability Summit about five lessons we’ve learned (so far) in our journey to inclusive and accessible marketing. I’m sharing here in hopes they will inspire your own thinking. To learn more about a couple employee-driven accessibility projects coming out of Microsoft’s One Week Hackathon, I encourage you to check out The Ability Hacks, which we published today.

1. Recognize the values case and the business case

People typically think about the values case for accessibility, which makes sense — empowering people with disabilities makes the world work better for everyone. But the business case for accessibility is equally important. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people worldwide experience some form of disability. In the US alone, that’s nearly 1 in 5 people in 1 in 3 households. If our products don’t work for a billion people, we’re not only failing in our mission, we’re also missing an enormous business opportunity.

2. Proximity powers empathy

We’ve learned the incredible value of investing in programs that bring us closer to customers of different backgrounds. We learn so much and do our best work when we commit to seeing the world from their perspectives. For instance, back at our 2015 Hackathon, a team of Microsoft engineers pitched a project with the lofty ambition of making gaming more accessible to gamers with limited mobility, and so began the journey of the Xbox Adaptive Controller. From the earliest moments, the development team reached out to nonprofits like Warfighter Engaged and AbleGamers to partner and learn how the product of their dreams could address the broadest set of needs in the real world. The team increased community engagement at every milestone, from product design and engineering, to prototype testing with gamers living with disabilities, to designing final retail packaging. The empathy we gained forged the path to a product we’re very proud of, that we hope gamers everywhere love when it arrives this September.

3. Accessibility for few becomes usability for many

We see time and again that our accessibility work starts out focused on enabling a specific set of customers but ends up benefiting everyone. For instance, Microsoft events are a major marketing investment each year, so it’s important our events meet the needs of every attendee, including people living with disabilities. A few years ago, we began live-transcribing event keynotes with the goal of helping attendees who are deaf or hard of hearing more easily follow along with keynotes. To our surprise, we ended up getting far more feedback from attendees who speak English as a second language – live transcription helped them navigate highly technical discussions and fast-paced product demos. Now we provide live transcription services in keynotes at all large Microsoft events and open captioning (and in many cases audio description) in company videos. The positive responses we’ve received speak to the broader, unexpected benefits of embracing accessibility.

If you find a Microsoft video missing captions, please contact us via our
Disability Answer Desk.

4. All marketing should be inclusive marketing

There’s value in audience-specific marketing programs, but we’ve learned we get the best results when mainstream marketing programs feature people from a range of audiences, backgrounds and life experiences. For instance, in our most recent AI ad we tell three different customer stories – one on preserving ancient architecture, one on sustainable farming and one on audio visualization AI – all woven together seamlessly as cool examples of how AI is improving lives for people today.

Pro tip: Make your presentations more accessible by adding live subtitles with the
Presentation Translator add-in for PowerPoint.

5. Real people, real stories

A few years back, we shifted our marketing approach to show technology empowering real people to do real things. As a result, we’ve seen far stronger return on investment than we would hiring actors to depict the stories of others. The video below is a powerful example – it features real students from Holly Springs Elementary in Georgia talking about how Microsoft Learning Tools help them overcome obstacles to reading.

Not only is the story more credible coming from real students, it makes the core empowerment message relatable to more people. This shift in philosophy now guides decisions on who represents Microsoft in our ads, on our website and at our events. In each case, real people sharing real stories is the most effective way to bring the impact of technology to life.

Real people sharing real stories is the most effective way to bring the impact of technology to life.

These are just five of many lessons we’ve learned, and our work is only beginning. We’re energized to keep learning and sharing our biggest lessons, because there’s tremendous value in embracing inclusion and accessibility – for your people, your bottom line, your customers and the world.

The case for technology investments in the environment

COMMENT

Create an artificial-intelligence platform for the planet, urges Lucas N. Joppa.

Computer screen showing landcover maps of Chesapeake Bay

Microsoft, in collaboration with others, is using algorithms to convert satellite images into information about categories of land cover, such as forests.Credit: Microsoft

Earlier this year, I became Microsoft’s first chief environment scientist. I’ve been tasked with deploying the company’s deep investments in artificial intelligence (AI) research and technology to help people around the world monitor, model and ultimately manage Earth’s natural systems. 

Most people I meet are surprised that one of the world’s leading technology companies has a role such as mine. Yet I believe that in the next few years, every major tech firm will be working on applying AI to sustainability. 

It is the ethical thing to do. It is good for business. And the time is right: applications of the type that I and others have long been developing can now work at scale. That is why, in 2017, Microsoft put US$50 million into a 5-year programme called AI for Earth (see ‘Microsoft for Earth’ and www.microsoft.com/aiforearth).

Flying blind

Today, we know more than ever about human activity. More than one-quarter of the 7.6 billion people on Earth post detailed information about their lives on Facebook at least once a month. Nearly one-fifth do so daily (see go.nature.com/2bwmejp). Those data are fed to increasingly powerful algorithms that link people to others, products or information. Yet we are flying blind when it comes to understanding the natural world. 

Scientists still struggle to predict the effects of climate change at the resolution of cities or regions, or over timeframes of months or weeks — largely because they don’t have the kinds of data needed to make such predictions, or because they lack the algorithms to convert data into useful information. In the United States, the best available data sets on land cover, at a resolution of 30 metres, were last updated nearly 7 years ago. Globally, the picture is much less complete. Yet without accurate information, housing developers, foresters or other land planners can’t make evidence-based decisions about which parcels of land to use for which purposes, and how much to leave untouched.

Microsoft for Earth

Microsoft’s AI for Earth programme, announced this month, is dedicated to finding solutions to challenges relating to climate, agriculture, water and biodiversity — in which users of the resulting services and applications could grow to tens or even hundreds of millions of people. (Such services may be produced by Microsoft or by other organizations with Microsoft’s support.)

It involves pairing the company’s technical expertise on artificial intelligence (AI) projects for environmental monitoring and modelling with that of other organizations. For example, six months ago, we partnered with the California firm Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system software, and the Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis, Maryland. In this collaboration, we aim to apply deep-learning techniques to convert freely available high-resolution imagery from the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Imaging Program into land-cover categories (forests, fields, water and impervious surfaces) at 1 metre resolution — all in a system that can be easily updated when new images are acquired. 

When complete, this system should allow organizations such as the Chesapeake Conservancy to gain detailed insights into how the lands they care about are changing, and so achieve a type of precision conservation that is desperately needed. Knowing exactly where agricultural run-off is entering the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, could indicate which square metres of land should be replanted.

In another collaboration, with researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, among others, we are working on ways to use organisms such as mosquitoes as self-powered data-collection devices. The aim is to create an AI-powered metagenomics pipeline, and to gain insights about an ecosystem from information about the animals that mosquitoes feed on.

We have made our AI technologies available to more than 35 organizations in more than 10 countries in the past few months, for applications ranging from species-abundance modelling to live poacher detection in drone imagery. We have also hosted multi-day courses to ensure that environmental scientists and managers are able to take full advantage of the tools.

Meanwhile, almost 95% of oceans — which cover more than two-thirds of Earth’s surface — remain unexplored. And scientists have described only around 1.5 million of the estimated 10 million species on Earth, and know little more than the names and collection locations for most of those1.

AI systems could help in all of these domains. In fact, after seven years of working at the intersection of environmental and computer science, I’m convinced that the technology is now mature enough and the global environmental crisis acute enough to justify the creation of an AI platform for the planet. 

What I’m envisioning is a portfolio of AI-infused ‘Earth applications’ available to people in diverse domains, from forestry to fisheries. These would be analogous to the application programming interfaces (APIs), such as those for searching or mapping, that have enabled people to build software services using components already made by engineers at technology companies.

Earth applications

AI and environmental-science researchers are now applying algorithms to topics as varied as pollution modelling, agricultural-yield optimization, animal-migration tracking and Earth-system modelling. (Many of them will come together next month in Austin, Texas, at the 17th Annual Conference on Artificial and Computational Intelligence and its Applications to the Environmental Sciences.)

Numerous advances in these areas are coming from AI breakthroughs in non-environmental ones. For instance, the increasing demand for low-cost camera systems for smartphones and other devices has necessitated cheaper algorithmic (instead of hardware) approaches to improving image resolution. These ‘super resolution’ AI techniques can be used to improve Earth-system models by statistically ‘downscaling’ low-resolution projections of around 100 square kilometres to high-resolution ones of around 12 square km that are more relevant to local land-use planners2

In short, AI systems can now be trained to classify raw data from sensors on the ground, in the sky or in space, using categories that both humans and computers understand, and at appropriate spatial and temporal resolution. With enough data on which to train, and with human feedback, these systems can learn to tag photos, acoustic recordings and genetic information with species names; or to convert satellite imagery into information on water availability at a landscape scale. 

Various organizations are already making impressive advances in Earth applications. iNaturalist and eBird, for instance, are identifying species using communities of citizen scientists. So far, iNaturalist’s 575,000 members have recorded nearly 7 million observations of more than 128,000 species (see ‘Assisted identification’).

Source: iNaturalist

iNaturalist relies on experts to validate users’ recordings, but deep convolutional neural networks are reducing the amount of expert input required — one of the biggest bottlenecks in the organization’s growth. Currently, for more than 5,000 species of plant and animal, its algorithms are able to make an accurate identification four out of every five times, on average. And when the algorithms’ top five predictions are considered for each sighting, the correct species is included 95% of the time3

The same types of deep-learning algorithm now used by iNaturalist’s vast community of users are also helping ecologists to classify millions of underwater snapshots of corals. Other non-profit organizations, such as WildBook, are scouring the photographs of a particular species posted on social-media platforms such as Flickr. By identifying each individual animal, together with where and how often it’s photographed, these algorithms are providing new ways of producing global population estimates for endangered species4

Environmental applications of AI are already attracting the attention of investment firms, particularly in the agriculture sector. Using data from high-resolution satellites orbiting Earth, the tech company Descartes Labs in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is monitoring crop production globally. Through the application of neural-network algorithms to more than three petabytes of satellite and weather data (1 petabyte is 1015 bytes), users can obtain information about projected yields that outperform all other available forecasts in resolution and accuracy. Likewise, Blue River Technology, a California start-up, is using AI algorithms combined with high-resolution cameras attached to tractors and other field equipment to produce automatic weed-detection and weed-removal systems. In my view, the recent acquisition of Blue River by the US agricultural company John Deere for $300 million represents just the beginning of the agricultural industry’s AI transformation.

Others are using AI to inform land-use management decisions — such as how to establish wildlife corridors for species such as lynxes and wolverines across the US Rocky Mountains as effectively and efficiently as possible. This is a difficult computational problem because there are so many possible solutions. But AI advances from operations research, developed for instance to work out how best to route traffic along a network of roads with the least cost and delay, are offering guidance5. Likewise, game-theory researchers are using AI to help law-enforcement officers to efficiently monitor the vast protected areas they are typically assigned to cover6. (AI algorithms identify what monitoring strategy will maximize the probability of patrols detecting illegal activity in a way that minimizes the probability of criminals working out what that strategy is.)

But these inspirational examples need to be the norm, not the exception. Too often, researchers publish exciting results about the application of AI to an environmental problem and those results are never translated into applications. Or an AI system is handed to a non-profit organization or government agency that lacks the resources and expertise to take advantage of it. Worse, traditional AI innovators in industry and academia rarely consider working on environmental applications. 

Two questions

I believe that for every environmental problem, governments, non-profits, academia and the technology industry need to ask two questions: ‘how can AI help solve this?’ and ‘how can we facilitate the application of AI?’

Governments. The public sector must ensure that environmental-data collection platforms continue to be produced, and that the data are made broadly and freely available in formats easily ingestible by AI algorithms. Various projects are already making key data broadly available. One is the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Copernicus programme, the world’s largest single Earth-observation programme, and its associated Sentinel missions for land, ocean and atmospheric monitoring. Another is a dedicated satellite system for tracking wildlife, supported by ESA along with the German and Russian governments (see go.nature.com/2jwanje). 

Governments, which tightly regulate the use of wireless communication channels, can also provide the funding for projects that are focused on the efficient use of microwave (cellular), radio and other spectra. Efforts such as the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, the world’s first “machine intelligence competition to overcome spectrum scarcity”, could expand our ability to collect environmental information from remote locations (see go.nature.com/2bbhuo8). Ultimately, ‘intelligent’ sensors that can identify which spectrum to tap into at any moment, depending on availability and cost, could transform the efficiency of data-collection efforts.

Finally, government-led projects can incentivize investigators from diverse domains to work on AI approaches to environmental monitoring. For instance, the creation of a national, sustained ecosystem assessment in the United States — as originally called for in 2011 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology7 — would motivate government agencies, academic researchers, non-profits and the tech industry to explore scalable solutions for monitoring the nation’s natural resources8.

Wildlife tracking camera in China

Artificial-intelligence systems can be trained to classify data, such as that from this motion-activated camera, into categories that humans and computers can understand.Credit: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty

Non-governmental organizations. The implementation of environmental sustainability projects often falls to resource-constrained non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Thus, the recognition within NGOs of the power of AI to aid their work — and of the importance of investing in technological solutions — is critical. 

A set of core AI technologies, such as species-recognition algorithms, could enable multiple organizations to work more cheaply and efficiently. Currently, what’s emerging largely depends on the priorities and interests of the tech sector. Domain-specific NGO consortiums (including those focused on water, say, or on biodiversity) could help to identify which problems funders, researchers and the private sector should prioritize. Such consortiums could also provide guidance on how to develop general infrastructure that multiple organizations could build to create their own specific applications.

Academia. Several changes would encourage more AI researchers in academia to focus on environmental sustainability, and to translate their findings into applications that others can use.

Computer scientists generally publish their work in conference proceedings. (Conference organizers use a peer-review process similar to that used by editors at traditional academic journals.) Awarding prizes at leading conferences for the best solution, rather than for the best paper, could motivate students and faculty members to invest more efforts in engineering. 

Currently, AI researchers tend to test their algorithms on a few standard data sets. For instance, image-recognition software is generally tested on ImageNet, a database of around 14 million photographs. (Subjects include people, scenes and objects, as well as plants and animals.) Earlier this year, iNaturalist made its data set of 5,000 photographs of birds, mammals, amphibians and other taxonomic groups available for attendees of the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. More environmental scientists should be prioritizing efforts to collate key data sets and make them available. Computer scientists can also help by communicating what kinds of data they need. 

There is growing interest in funding AI research for environmental applications. Since 2008, the US National Science Foundation has funded the Computational Sustainability Network, a collection of AI researchers working on environmental sustainability. Submission tracks on sustainability are now included at leading AI conferences. And environmental journals are dedicating more space to the topic. 

Fully engaging the academic AI community in environmental issues, however, will require the creation of dedicated academic centres focused on translating research to applications that could be used at scale. These could be attached to leading AI research institutes, such as the University of Southern California Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, and involve institutions around the world. 

Technology sector. The full participation of the technology sector is needed in efforts to provide key data in appropriate formats, as well as the algorithms, the infrastructure to train those algorithms on the data, and the means of making the end services available to as many people as possible. But why should companies whose primary business is not environmental sustainability engage? 

At Microsoft, striving to democratize access to our technology is part of our culture. The initial mission to ‘put a computer on every desk and in every home’ has become a mission to ‘empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more’. 

More broadly, market trends indicate that demonstrating social responsibility is good for business. Investors and owners of a collective $100 trillion in assets are now requesting that companies provide information on climate change, water and forest issues through the reporting platform run by the charity CDP and through the United Nations Principles of Responsible Investment. Also, for all major corporations, any type of uncertainty — financial, political or environmental — is generally bad for business. Conversely, in an increasingly resource-constrained world, sustainability is key to resilience; reducing the likelihood of environmental disasters safeguards supply chains, for instance. 

The opportunity to work on societally important topics can be a huge pull for potential employees in a competitive industry. Since Microsoft launched AI for Earth, employees have approached me from all corners of the company, especially data scientists and engineers, wanting to apply their skills to issues that they care about.

Finally, there are major market opportunities in this area. High-resolution maps of natural resources are crucial to those working on environmental issues. They are also useful to the military, urban planners and providers of insurance, among others. 

Microsoft is one of several tech companies working to provide technology to help solve environmental challenges. Google, Amazon, the software company Esri in Redlands, California, and the data provider Planet Labs in San Francisco, California, are among those striving to make their software, services and data available for environmental applications. 

As companies ramp up their efforts, however, they must address the fact that today’s AI technologies often come at a price and require computational expertise that puts them out of reach of many. Schemes to address access and education are crucial. Good examples of these include Microsoft’s multi-day instructor-led AI for Earth education courses (see ‘Microsoft for Earth’) and Google’s annual Geo for Good workshop, designed to help non-profits and other organizations make better use of Google’s map data. 

Best practice

Researchers and developers must ensure that Earth applications are trustworthy, transparent and fair. The Partnership on AI — a consortium of technology companies and others founded in 2016 that came together this year to decide on best practices — should agree on a set of standards for producing algorithms for Earth observations. The partnership could draw on work from the 2015 Transformations conference in Stockholm. This produced a preliminary Biosphere Code Manifesto, with the aim of writing ten guiding principles for the application of algorithms for environmental sustainability.

Some will argue — rightly — that it was largely the technology of the first and second industrial revolutions that caused the environmental issues of today, and that we already know what we need to do: reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, the destruction of forests and the overfishing of oceans. But decisions about what actions to take will be easier to make — and less vulnerable to politicization — if we know what is happening on Earth, when and where. AI can help to provide that information. 

Time is too short, and Earth’s resources too important, for companies such as Microsoft to ignore what is likely to be humanity’s biggest challenge yet: mitigating and adapting to changing climates, ensuring the resilience of water supplies and sustainably feeding a rapidly growing human population, all while stemming an ongoing and catastrophic loss of biodiversity. 

AI is not a panacea for environmental problems. But history will judge the success of the Information Age by our ability to deploy its resulting technology in stewardship of the planet. It’s a big challenge, but an even bigger opportunity.  

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