Conserving, protecting, and managing our most precious resource: water

As a young woman, I had an opportunity to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. The two years that I spent in teaching in Gabon, Togo, and Ghana opened my eyes to different cultures and ways of life, enriched me, and helped shape the person that I am today.

During my time in Africa, I found that I had a very personal relationship with water—one I had never before paid much attention to. The climate in parts of West Africa is tropical, and each country I served in was lush and verdant, thanks to plentiful rainfall and abundant water sources. However, as I saw firsthand in my travels, this is not the case in much of Africa, where water is scarce and rainfall all but non-existent, and where the effect of water shortages on the population is at once visible and heartbreaking.

Water is essential for life—we use it for sanitation, drinking, cooking, irrigation, energy, and production and transportation of consumer goods. Yet water supplies in many parts of the world are growing increasingly scarce due to climate change and continued population growth.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) estimates that there are currently 700 million people spanning 43 countries who suffer from water scarcity. And, by 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to be living in areas that will experience absolute water scarcity. These statistics and others are grim, prompting the World Economic Forum to release a 2015 global risk assessment that put water crises at the top of a list of serious issues with the gravest impact on the planet.

In the developing world, water scarcity is most critical in large population centers where infrastructure and supplies are inadequate to meet citizen demand. And in the developed world, climate change is causing record droughts, signaling the need for communities across the globe to think differently about the way they manage, conserve, and provide access to water.

This year, as the world pauses on World Water Day to think about our relationship to water and how we can collectively help protect and conserve this most precious resource, I want to share some thoughts on how technology can be employed to help us more closely monitor and conserve our water supplies. Goal 6 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” is critical to the future of our planet.

Building a world-class water management system

Aqaba, the only coastal city in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is home to 130,000 people and a wide range of water storage facilities and conduits, from public wells and reservoirs to individual pipes. The local water utility, Aqaba Water Company (AW), not only manages all local water plants but oversees the local water infrastructure, including transportation, distribution, maintenance, and billing services. It’s a large job, and one that quickly tapped existing infrastructure; AW suffered from inefficiency and inferior customer service, frequently sending workers to repair leaks after too much water had been spilled.

To gain a precise, current overview of resources, AW built a cloud-based system by using Microsoft Azure and the SQL Server data engine. The result is a world-class water management system that monitors city resources. Managers and engineers can access it from anywhere, enabling them to run a more efficient and cost-effective utility that delivers premium service to citizens.

Conserving water with cloud technologies

In California, water shortages and a record drought required area agencies such as the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission—provider of water, power, and sewer services for 2.6 million citizens—to lower their water usage by 25 percent. The precise measurement of usage levels quickly became overwhelming, so the utility turned to Microsoft cloud technologies and embedded smart sensors to gain instant access to information.

Today, the utility can reduce the amount of overflows, move water to areas in the system where the need is greatest, and treat water so that the quality is better for drinking. And, moving operations to the cloud saved the agency the cost of servers, hardware, and software, giving their budget an unexpected boost.

As corporate sponsor for UC Davis Center for Water Energy Efficiency, we are working with Professor Frank Loge, director of the team that is using Microsoft Azure to analyze water and energy consumption. The resulting data will inform the water utilities—and, ultimately, other stakeholders in the State of California—on conservation programs and water rate structures, and help them to discover leaks or other errant usage patterns. Analysis at the nexus of water and energy provides insights into managing both systems for sustainable results, and provides consumers, engineers, and policy makers with new ways to conserve both water and energy.

Preventing flooding with Microsoft Azure

The city of Breda, in the Netherlands, also uses a combination of smart sensors and Microsoft cloud technology to monitor water flows. With two rivers and high rainfall, Breda was challenged to run pumps efficiently without a real-time picture of water levels. The city frequently used more power than necessary and wasted resources—stationing employees in areas where flooding was anticipated, only to have water levels remain stable.

By moving their system to the cloud, Breda could collect data from sensors and pumps around the city, analyze and monitor pumping levels in real time, and use this information to optimize resources, lower energy and maintenance costs, and reduce flooding. The result is a leaner and more efficient system.

Educating constituents about water conservation

In Singapore, as in many countries with large population centers, water resources are scarce. The national water agency, PUB, draws on local catchment areas, imported water, reclaimed water, and desalinated water to serve the needs of its citizens. In order to keep constituents better informed on the current state of the country’s water resources, PUB deployed MyWaters, a mobile and desktop application running on Microsoft SharePoint and hosted by Microsoft Azure.

MyWaters provides citizens with up-to-the-minute information on water levels, delivered via closed-circuit TV images and embedded sensors that monitor flood-prone areas. The app even includes a feature for citizens to send feedback and suggestions to PUB—and they can provide information on areas that may not be monitored by sensors or CCTV cameras.

The future is in the cloud

Cloud computing has emerged as a vital resource for managing many of the most challenging problems facing us today, and water conservation is at the top of the list. Cloud and big data technologies can help us ensure clean drinking water, proper reservoir levels, and sustainable water management practices. They can even play a role in educating policy makers, engineers, and citizens on the bigger picture of water usage. To learn more about cloud technologies, visit Microsoft Azure.

Empowering women and girls: from the classroom to the boardroom

Last Monday on March 7, I had an opportunity to participate in a panel hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the United Nations Office for Partnerships in honor of International Women’s Day. I was joined by leaders in the public and private sector for an interactive discussion about the importance of empowering women and girls. The discourse was lively and focused on how we can collectively help women and girls achieve gender parity, and at the same time make real progress in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as set forth by the United Nations—of which women’s empowerment is a critical piece.

As a mother of three daughters, making sure that girls have access to the best education and opportunities possible is a topic that is close to my heart. In my role as vice president of Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft, I work to form strong public-private partnerships with governments and countries around the world to provide cutting-edge education and access to technology tools, safer and more sustainable communities, better access to healthcare, and a chance for women to achieve gender parity and economic prosperity.

We’ve made it our goal to empower and enable women and girls—from the classroom all the way to the boardroom. We believe that women participating in all fields will help bring about a brighter future.

Investing in girls’ education and skills development

Technology plays a central role in the empowerment of every woman and girl—from providing access to education and economic opportunities, to enabling personal and professional growth, to helping girls find their true passion and place in the world.

One of the most critical ways we can accelerate gender parity is by supporting education and skills development for women and girls. By the end of this decade, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that there will be 1.4 million computer science-based job openings, and that to reach gender parity, women must fill half of these positions. In addition, over 75 percent of all jobs will require some technology skills, signaling the need to equip women and girls with the skills that they need to be competitive in the marketplace.

To encourage girls to pursue studies in computer science-related fields, we take a multi-faceted approach. We promote the study of computer science at traditionally female colleges and other universities. We encourage the study of STEM curricula in schools and help young women develop computational thinking skills.

Through Microsoft YouthSpark, we are investing $75 million in community programs to increase access to computer science education—especially for those from under-represented backgrounds—and to build greater diversity into the tech talent pipeline. This initiative includes programs like DigiGirlz, which helps reduce the gender gap by giving high school girls a chance to learn about careers in technology and participate in technology workshops around the world, and Girls Who Code, which is dedicated to helping girls achieve gender parity in computing fields by 2020. As part of the Girls Who Code summer program, Microsoft hosted more than 100 girls for intensive instruction in computer science and mentorship from top female technology executives.

Microsoft is also a part of Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID), an initiative dedicated to increasing diversity in computer science undergraduates. Participating tech companies—including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft—will donate a combined total of $1.35 million over the next three years to the computer science departments of 15 universities, which have agreed to follow practices used by institutions where almost half of the computer science majors were female. The schools will also provide data for a study on how best to attract and retain female, black, and Hispanic computer science students.

Empowering women to achieve financial inclusion

Financial inclusion is a major part of the effort to help women and girls achieve their ambitions. Internet access is a key component of financial inclusion, and we are working to provide affordable broadband access for all, to promote and protect the digital infrastructure, and to mainstream digital innovations so that women—and all people all over the world—can benefit. Our partnership with the World Bank and other organizations continues to make strides in achieving the recommendations in the World Development Report 2016.

Microsoft has a proud history of investing in organizations that support women such as contracting with women-owned suppliers and assisting women entrepreneurs. We have several programs to help entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses such as Microsoft BizSpark, which provides three years of free software, services, and tech support to startups. Another is the Microsoft Ventures Accelerators program, which provides business mentors and advanced resources to help startups navigate the challenges of launching a company. And, we now have 120 Microsoft Innovation Centers in 33 countries, which provide practical opportunities for entrepreneurs to collaborate with software developers, IT professionals, and academic researchers.

Working to achieve gender parity

Gender parity can profoundly affect the peace and security of communities. Achieving this parity requires respect, gender-balanced leadership, inclusion, and cultural flexibility. Empowered women and girls are at the heart of this effort.

When women are empowered in society, the result is greater innovation and the advancement of local economies—benefits for the individual as well as the larger community.

Forecasting the future of the health industry: healthcare without walls

This week, more than 40,000 health professionals from the around the world gathered in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the annual conference of the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). This event is one of the largest and most influential conferences in the healthcare IT space. Microsoft representatives showcased a number of solutions for health organizations and talked with industry leaders about digital transformation. Discussions centered on a number of trends, including the shift to value-based care, evolution of patient engagement, opportunities enabled by big data, and Internet of Health Things.

At Microsoft, we have a clear mission: to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. To accomplish this in the realm of healthcare, we are working to enable an evolving landscape of people, environments, and data, and are using technology to help solve the most challenging global health issues—now and in the future. Our goal is to empower healthcare organizations by helping to connect people and technology, harness the power of data and research, and apply advanced intelligence to the care of every person around the world. I’d like to share a little of how we’re achieving these goals today and what I think the future of healthcare will look like tomorrow.

Enterprise class security and privacy protection

There are few industries where security and privacy are more important than healthcare. Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 113 million U.S. health records were exposed in 2015, a fact which is inexcusable given the options available today to safeguard patient data.

While security has always been a focus for Microsoft, we recognize that the evolving digital world in which we live requires a new industry-wide approach—one that focuses on how we protect, detect, and respond to security threats that reflect the realities of our world.

We’ve created a dedicated group of worldwide security experts, the Microsoft Enterprise Cybersecurity Group, to deliver solutions, expertise, and services for Microsoft customers. We’ve also opened a Cyber Defense Operations Center that works around the clock to protect, detect, and respond to threats in real time. Our intelligent security graph brings together data points from billions of sources to give us unique insights into the threat landscape, and it’s our mission to use those insights to better protect our customers and their data.

In addition to these protections, we’ve made it our job to think about how clinicians access information, interact with software and services across devices and platforms, and derive insights from machine-driven intelligence. As a result, our products have built-in security technologies across devices, software, and services—all working in tandem to deliver technologies with greater security for health organizations. Such technologies include Windows 10, Office 365, Dynamics CRM, Microsoft Azure, and Enterprise Mobility Suite—all core Microsoft products that provide customers with a holistic, agile, and more secure platform. Healthcare organizations can feel confident taking advantage of new technologies and trends, knowing that our technologies help keep their data safe and secure.

Applying cloud and machine learning technologies in healthcare

Bioinformatics specialists at Spain’s Institute of Medical and Molecular Genetics (INGEMM), working on behalf of the Dravet Syndrome Foundation, are using a next-generation sequencing (NGS) solution built on Microsoft Azure to sequence millions of DNA strands in an effort to help uncover the causes of genetic diseases such as severe epilepsy and other disorders. The foundation is using the system to reduce the time to diagnose patients’ genetic disorders. Previously, specialists could test for only a single gene, causing patients to suffer through multiple tests to determine the root cause of their condition. But now, with the new solution, specialists can analyze hundreds of genes in a single test and reduce the time to diagnosis from years to just one month.

An exciting and pioneering new solution that heralds the future of healthcare is in use at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health System in Connecticut. The solution, ImagineCare, is built on Microsoft Azure Machine Learning and big data technologies, and Cortana Analytics Suite. Nurses and specialists use the always-on, cloud-based system to track changes in patients’ health status in real time. Data from devices such as blood-pressure cuffs, glucose monitors, pulse oximeters, and activity trackers like Microsoft Band are transmitted via smartphone to the cloud, where they are incorporated into a dashboard running on Cortana Analytics Suite. When changes occur in an individual’s health status, an alert is sent to the correct care provider, who then reaches out to the patient—often before the patient is even aware of a problem. I firmly believe that solutions like ImagineCare will become the norm as the industry moves to more fully embrace healthcare without walls.

Forecasting the future of healthcare

Thanks to innovations like mobile, cloud, and machine learning technologies, there is a seismic shift that is driving a new era of healthcare. Consider how technology has changed the lives of thousands of families with children who have Type 1 diabetes. Nightscout, created by a group of parents and people with Type 1 diabetes, uses an open-source solution and the Pebble smartwatch, running on Microsoft Azure, to allow patients and their families to remotely and dynamically keep watch over glucose levels. By virtually monitoring their children’s glucose levels, parents can enjoy increased peace of mind, and children can experience a newfound independence and the chance to have a more carefree childhood.

In a similar vein, Swedish medical devices company Aerocrine, maker of asthma monitoring tools, turned to Microsoft Azure to help improve device performance. Asthma devices are sensitive and prone to performance issues caused by dry weather or humidity and can stop functioning as a result. Aerocrine is using Azure Event Hubs and Azure Stream Analytics to detect an instrument’s humidity level and whether devices are functioning outside normal limits. Eventually, it will create alerts for customers so that they experience no interruption in service.

In addition to giving patients a more active role in their own care, the increase in entry-level Windows 10 devices available to clinicians—thin, ruggedized, long-battery-life devices, all with enterprise class security—is enabling healthcare workers to provide care in the communities where people live and work. This “healthcare without walls” movement is improving the quality of care that providers are able to deliver—moving from a healthcare industry that focuses on “sick care” or management of chronic issues to one that’s characterized by preventative care. Best of all, by using mobile devices and cloud technology to store and access data safely and securely, care providers are better able to focus their time and energy on caring for patients.

To illustrate this model, we go to Dr. Brian Levine, a fertility doctor in New York City, who uses Microsoft technologies running on a Surface tablet to interact with patients and provide education about care plans. Having the device with him in consultation enables Dr. Levine to be a “portable doctor,” with the freedom to dictate and annotate information directly onto the device, retrieve patient records, and share ultrasound images with colleagues at the click of a button. Best of all, the Surface does all of this with accuracy, speed, and performance, allowing Dr. Levine to do what he does best and provide quality care for his patients.

Toward healthcare without walls

Today, innovations from Microsoft, our partners, and our customers are empowering health organizations, communities, and people around the globe to improve healthcare by helping them better understand and share information, and to provide care in real time, based on actionable data. Many patients who sat in hospital beds yesterday are receiving telemedicine-enabled care in their homes today. Big-data techniques are guiding the treatment of patients. Clinicians are communicating and working with patients outside of healthcare facilities. And that’s just the beginning. The digitization of healthcare promises to be game changing. At Microsoft, we know that the strides we are making with our partners and customers will enable even greater transformation in the future.