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A polar bear is shown in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. On Wednesday, March 19, the Obama administration announces a new effort to create user-friendly tools from federal data to help communities prepare for climate change / SUBHANKAR BANERJEE AP

Google plans to create high-resolution drought mapping for the mainland United States as part of a White House effort - to be unveiled Wednesday-to give communities more data so they can prepare for climate change.

Google, one of several corporate participants, will also use federal databases to build what it says will be the first hi-res terrain map of the planet to show how sea levels and other climate-related changes are occurring. It's donating one petabyte - or one billion megabytes - of cloud storage for the endeavor.

"We can help make sense out of vast amounts of data," says Rebecca Moore, engineering manager of Google Earth Engine & Earth Outreach. She says the U.S. government collects a "tremendous amount" of valuable satellite data, but much of it is stored on tape and not released. She says Google aims to help people prepare for extreme heat, drought, sea level rise and flooding "as easily as they use Google maps to get driving directions,"

The Obama administration is tapping the expertise and reach of more than a dozen U.S. companies, universities and private groups, as well as the World Bank, for its "Climate Data Initiative," which is part of the president's broader plan to fight climate change.

Beginning Wednesday, a new weblink - climate.data.gov - will be the central site for U.S. government data on climate change, focusing initially on coastal flooding and sea level rise and then expanding to look at health, energy infrastructure and food supply. It will include data not previously released that map hundreds of thousands of U.S. bridges, roads, railroad tunnels, canals and river gauges.

"These data sets ... have all been scrubbed carefully" to ensure their public release poses no terrorism threat, says John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology. He says the initiative aims to tap the "ingenuity" of the private sector in developing user-friendly applications and maps.

"It's going to be a huge asset in preparing communities for climate change," Holdren says. For example, new data tools could help people suffering through a heat wave easily find the nearest cooling station.

Microsoft plans to donate a total of 800 terabytes - nearly one petabyte - of cloud storage to 40 climate-change research projects. For communities seeking help, it will customize its free two-year-old "Fetch Climate" tool, which uses satellite and other data to show how an area has changed over time.

Intel plans to host three climate-change "hackathons" this year - in the Chesapeake Bay, New Orleans and San Jose. It will challenge engineering and computer science students in each area to create helpful new apps and tools from existing federal data.

"We're acting as an organizer," says Stephen Harper, Intel's global director of environmental and energy policy. He says it's developed a methodology for effectively using hackathons and will also work with San Jose on a network of sensors that track air quality and municipal water leaks.

Esri, a privately-held software company based in Redlands, Calif., will make available to other communities the climate-related maps and apps that it's helped its municipal clients develop.

"We see no need to sell them over and over again," says Pat Cummens, Esri's government policy strategist, of these data tools. She says it just makes sense to share what the company has learned, adding: "Everyone wins in the end -- and hopefully, the environment."

The new data initiative is "an important step to provide this information to users," says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of Georgetown Climate Center, a non-partisan group that works on adaptation policies. Yet, she says while data are necessary, "translating it will be key." She says communities tell her group that they need data in easily accessible and understandable formats.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Google, Intel, Microsoft help build climate change tools

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