Microsoft, EU Environmental Agency Keep Eye on Water Quality

These days, taking a plunge into the world's waters can be dangerous, and it's not just because of jellyfish and sharks.

On Wednesday, the European Environmental Agency (EEA) launched with Microsoft a new Web site called "Eye on Earth" that shows the water quality scores of 21,000 bathing sites across Europe on a map, making pollution data widely available for the first time in an easy format. Eye on Earth offers five languages: Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, German and English.

The EEA and Microsoft have agreed to a five-year partnership to develop the site, which will eventually be expanded to show air pollution, biodiversity and national park information.

"It will be one complete picture of the state of the environment in a community," said Gülcin Karadeniz, EEA spokeswoman.

Oceans, rivers and lakes are increasingly in peril because of pollution caused by human activity. But a broad picture of which spots are good and which aren't has not been easily accessible, Karadeniz said.

The EEA keeps close track of the damage by collecting technical reports from the 27 countries in the European Union, but those reports are hard for lay people to interpret, although those reports are posted on the EEA's Web site, Karadeniz said.

"We always had a problem," Karadeniz said. "We do reach the media, we do reach the scientific community but we have never succeeded in reaching the beachgoers."

The water quality data is integrated with Microsoft's Virtual Earth mapping program, which can show both maps and satellite shots of popular areas.

The complex technical data on the quality of the water has been distilled to a stop-light ranking system: Green means the water complies with E.U. standards, red means it falls below standards and yellow means the site hasn't been sufficiently tested.

People who visit a particular spot can provide comments as well as their own lay ranking of the swimming site with either a thumbs-up icon, thumbs down or a horizontal hand indicating a "so-so" rank.

E.U countries are required to regularly collect and analyze water samples. At the end of the swimming season, the data is sent to the EEA. The data is then forwarded to the European Commission, which writes a report, Karadeniz said.

The EEA is using Microsoft's SQL server database to collect data, which has a geospatial feature that can take data from a particular area and plot it on a map, said Ludo de Bock, worldwide Microsoft director for the E.U. and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

The feature also enables new data coming into the EEA to be uploaded to the Web site in real time, Karadeniz said. Greece, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Portugal and Slovakia will be able to send 2008 data.

More countries are expected to be able to rapidly send up-to-date information. Historical data for some sites going back as far as 18 years will also be posted.

Microsoft has also built a desktop gadget to draw information from Eye on Earth, but users must have the Windows Vista OS.

So what should a person do if the EEA says the water is bad but a user says the water is fine?

"I think we would recommend you don't swim there," Karadeniz said.

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