Stop Poaching with IoT Technology and Project 15 with Sarah Maston, Senior Solution Architect, Microsoft

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In this episode of The IoT Unicorn Podcast, Sarah Maston, Senior Solution Architect at Microsoft, discusses the development of the animal conservation initiative, Project 15.

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00:00 Pete Bernard: Welcome to the IoT Unicorn podcast. This is Pete Bernard from Microsoft, and this podcast is for anyone interested in the long-term technology trends in the IoT space and the journey from here to there. So let's get started.

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00:21 PB: On this episode of the IoT unicorn, we talk to a very interesting person doing very interesting things, and that's Sarah Maston of Microsoft. We talk about Boston University where we both went to school, a little bit about nutrition and nutrition technology, but we spend quite a bit of time talking about Project 15, which is an open platform effort that her and her colleagues have been championing. It's an anti-poaching platform that's been adopted by a number of NGOs around the world, and we talk about that and the technology behind it. So please join us.

[music]

00:58 PB: Sarah, thanks for joining us. We've had a lot of different guests on the show from silicon partners to telecom, internal Microsoft, I think you kind of fall into the category of very interesting Microsoft people that are doing very interesting things, so I'm gonna tee that up. Maybe you can give us a little bit of an intro yourself and sort of some background.

01:18 Sarah Maston: Sure, it's funny, when I look at my cats, I don't know that I'm that, they think I'm that interesting, but thank you. [chuckle] I'm really happy to be here. Where did I come from? So I actually have a really long history in the database space. I started out making data warehouses before that was a thing, that kinda grew, and so I started out as a medical programmer, actually, at a company called Meditech in Massachusetts.

01:56 PB: I see. Oh, where in Massachusetts, by the way?

02:00 SM: Ah, they were in Natick, but I lived in Arlington, I went to BU.

02:04 PB: So interesting, interesting... Oh, you went to BU? Oh, I went to BU also.

02:08 SM: I did, once upon a time. Oh, yay!

02:10 PB: I was a BA/MA BU grad, isn't that weird?

02:12 SM: Go Terriers!

02:12 PB: No, I was gonna say... Yeah, go Terriers. I was gonna say I had, my first job out of college was in West Natick.

02:19 SM: Oh, interesting.

02:19 PB: There was a little shop called The Bit Bucket computer store, and my professor from BU, my assembly language professor actually ran the company, The Bit Bucket, and we built computers, branded computers, and I was his first engineering hire, and it was in West Natick. I didn't stay there that long, 'cause it was kind of like a weird job, but yeah, The Bit Bucket, I remember West Natick... Yeah, Natick's a nice area. That's cool.

02:49 SM: So I was gonna say did they have a lot of Twinkies, 'cause I believe that the Twinkie fact... I don't know. I think it's in Natick...

02:57 PB: Oh, the Twinkie was there?

02:58 SM: I'm unclear.

03:00 PB: I think that was it, I know there's Necco Wafers too was out there.

03:01 SM: Oh, delicious, delicious.

03:01 PB: I'm not sure where that is, yeah.

03:03 SM: Yeah, no, I actually have a degree in psychology and women's studies from BU.

03:08 PB: Fantastic.

03:09 SM: So, a little bit...

03:10 PB: Fantastic, okay. Go Terriers, yeah. Okay.

03:13 SM: Okay.

03:14 PB: There you go.

03:15 SM: Back to this.

03:15 PB: We should have cleared that up in the pre, in the preamble before we started recording, but that's okay, now we know, so that's good.

03:21 SM: Thank you. Yeah, so I did a lot of data warehouses, and I put myself actually in Harvard's night school to kind of get out of data and start learning more Java-ey, getting into more programming stuff, because I had a really weird side hobby then as well, where I had been really sick in my late 20s, and I started studying nutrition, and I ended up creating what was a graph database of food, and I wanted to go and put myself in Harvard 'cause it was easier to learn how to code it than to sort of explain it. And so that journey led me to... I actually invented that over at IBM a couple of years ago and working at IBM, I met a colleague there that had come to Microsoft and so how did you come to Microsoft? Well, I had a friend, and then I met the IoT group and they... It was funny because I hadn't, I was kind of the first person in the group that hadn't built a computer to be.

04:44 PB: Right, right.

04:45 SM: Wasn't a hardware person, and but when they brought me in to start talking about that bigger data conversation, so that's how I got here.

04:57 PB: Interesting. Yeah, cool, so obviously you've been here, I think a couple of years or two years or...

05:01 SM: I have.

05:02 PB: Just about that. That's exciting. Yeah, so that's an interesting path, I think a lot of people get to Microsoft through professional connections, personal connections, there's all sorts of different ways and so you were involved in nutrition and...

05:16 SM: I was.

05:16 PB: And kind of analyzing that. Is that still a big kind of passion of yours, personal nutrition and things?

05:22 SM: I, well yes, personal. Once I designed the graph with the team there, which was the connection of food to disease through phyto-chemicals and the reactions in your bios, kind of like a Facebook of food. I had spent so much... Honestly, I had spent so much time on that in my life that the IoT space and starting to learn more formally about that was so exciting, and a lot of my data colleagues in my circle, same thing, because sometimes you can be doing the same thing and database, database... What's new? And so this was actually really fun, and it was in the beginning of when I got here, my job was a lot of enablement. We were gonna teach people how to use Azure and how to use Azure IoT and etcetera. And that's my fault that I'm having a notification 'cause clearly I...

06:25 PB: That's okay.

06:26 SM: I could have turned that off.

[chuckle]

06:30 SM: But what's interesting is that I... This, it's kind of a strange story in the sense that I... It's not that strange, but I was outside and of my apartment and I saw a lot of smoke and I freaked out, and I ran into my building to save my cats and long story, very short, lots of stress, but the next day, I ended up designing a safety platform that could use IoT to speak differently in a crisis, and so that's really something that whenever I talk about my journey to Microsoft and learning something new is that it was so great to have the space to be like, "Hey, I have an idea." But anyway, that's another story. [chuckle]

07:26 PB: Fascinating. Yeah, I do actually, I use the... I'm kind of a Fitbit fan, and I use the food logging on Fitbit, and it gives me a macro-nutrient breakdown and stuff, and so I've been kind of on my own health journey in the past year or so and feeling good, feeling fit. And part of it is kind of analyzing what I ingest, and I feel like we're just sort of at the beginning of a lot of that science like I would love for the data I'm putting into the Fitbit system, which I guess is now Google, just to get even more analysis of that over time. So it's fascinating kind of measuring what you put into your body and how your body is working, and we had a Dr. David Rhew from Microsoft's chief medical officer on a few weeks ago, and talking about COVID of course, but also just more of the intersection of health and technology and very early stages of really taking advantage of that kind of combination, so...

08:24 SM: No, that's true. It's my work, it was... My work pretty much focused on just taking stuff we do with process, architecture and analysis, and then data, of course, but if I think back when my hair was much browner, I just thought what's breaking when it came to metabolic syndrome, and it was... Well, what happens when I do this and then how does your... And what does your intestinal villi do? And so basically connecting those dots to go through the process architecture of digestion and then to make sort of the data model of that. And to say, "Oh, when you eat oatmeal, the pectin and beta-glucan, pectin from apples and pears comes in, it absorbs bile salts." Basically, all those different processes and then how those can combine and really... Back in the day, I created what's called a food program, and that's also known as a diet, but a food program that would layer what foods to eat, how to change your internals to do what it needed to do. And I guess my own doctor took notice because I lowered my cholesterol 90 points in under three months, so...

09:48 PB: Wow.

09:49 SM: Then I made a system that did it, and so that was really... And I met a lot of really cool people in that journey. Then unfortunately, I got sick from stress, but when I came out of that, here I was, and then I invented some new stuff.

10:12 PB: Good, so let's talk about some new stuff. You've been sort of very, very busy, not only being a new... Fairly new Microsoft employee, but also building up something that is referred to as Project 15 for probably some of our listeners are probably familiar, but why don't you give us a little bit of a recap of the origin story around Project 15 and where that's at?

10:40 SM: Sure, I'd love to. I do a little project in the... Although it's a little bigger now, in my spare nights and in weekend hours with a few friends of mine here at Microsoft and... Alright, so the origin story, once upon a time, it really speaks back to that incident with the cat, and essentially, I made a safety system that could use IoT devices to speak to a community within an emergency. So if you thought about some of the stuff that was going on, you have to go to Twitter to find hashtag, you have to go... You don't really know what's going on. There are so many systems getting good data to first responders, but for us, we don't really know what's going on. So that project became known as Project Edison. And so it went for about a year, we built that with a partner, Insight, and we went on the IoT in Action global event tour and talked about it, and I talked about safety in every context you could imagine.

11:55 SM: I talked about safe retail, I talked about safe cities, I talked about safe schools, safe workplaces, safe buildings. And then, actually, I met a guy who does anti-poaching and his name was Eric and... Eric Dinerstein, and I realized in one of these very stereotypical, I was at the cafe with my colleague Daisuke, and I started drawing, and I said, "Anti-poaching, it's the same use case as a Project Edison safety case," and he looked at me and I said, "Well, it's a population that can't defend itself, and it's someone that you wanna stop or making it less impactful, using devices, and then people you need to talk to to get help. So maybe we can get other people that were like us to have this aha moment that scientists are remaking these wheels that we've already made in the commercial space." And so, that's how Project 15 started, which was like, what do we have in our world that we just don't know the use cases of the scientific world. And the second person I met was another professor, Wasser, Dr. Sam Wasser, and he was at U-Dub, and he also was involved with trying to prevent animal... The tracking of tusks and things, illegal trafficking, and I learned about a pangolin from one of his research fellows, which is a tiny, cute, little, scaly animal, and...

13:42 PB: Okay.

13:43 SM: I had never heard of a pangolin, so cute. And they're slow. And the problem is, is that their defense mechanism is that if you scare them, they turn into a ball.

13:55 PB: Okay.

13:56 SM: And if you are...

13:57 PB: Sounds fair.

13:58 SM: Right, I do the same thing.

14:00 PB: Yeah, I can relate to that.

14:01 SM: I'm just gonna be a little ball over here, but and that works for lions and tigers who are like, "Oh, that's a sharp little ball," but it doesn't work for, poachers will just make a noise, it curls up into a ball, they pick it up, they put it in a bag so.

14:21 PB: I see.

14:22 SM: That's our most poached animal on the planet, actually.

14:25 PB: Oh no.

14:26 SM: Anyway, but I thought, "Well, what's the difference between shoplifting a sweater at a store and shoplifting an animal?" And so that was really where this started was, can we just think about this?

14:44 PB: Right, right. Fantastic. And I think, and I did see you had a segment on a recent video, it was like a United Nations gathering of interested parties around the equator initiative, and I guess I was labeled on YouTube. But can you talk a little bit about that. I mean you're getting some pretty good NGO type of engagement off of project 15.

15:13 SM: Yes. So that was super exciting. I would be... I'll just, full disclosure, I was very nervous, but... And I was a little frustrated with the pandemic because I think I could have gone to the United Nations in another reality.

15:32 PB: Yeah I know.

15:33 SM: But virtually, was very fun and so what happened was, is so we put up a video because we had support from my CVP and my management tree, and pretty much everyone in the group that I was in was very supportive of Project 15 right in the beginning. And so we put up a little web page, and I used to call it the bat phone, because we wondered if anyone would call from the scientific realm, and we actually started meeting NGOs. We had... People used our web page to get in touch with us and two of the people, one of them is... That we started working with, is Red Panda Network, which is a fascinating, wonderful organization. Another one is called the Zambezi project, and the third was a woman who runs the small grants program at... The United Nations Development Program has different sections and small grants is a department that funds scientific projects and that are all very, very much sustainability focused.

16:55 SM: I could give a whole talk about... They're so fascinating. And I met her because she actually knew... Her husband was friends with Daisuke so it was like one of these things where somebody hears about what's... And, "Hey, that's really interesting. Let's see if that would work." And then six months later, I'm speaking at their conference. But what happened was, is that we kind of paired up together to see if we could bring our commercial processes that we do normally with my day job, IoT engagements, we're gonna do an architectural design session, we're gonna get to know those processes. And then she gave us... We piloted with three grantees and started to try to figure out, we have different worlds, but we do the same things, it's just different words to describe them.

18:01 SM: And so we had a few epiphanies during this process, and so the thing is, is that she... Her group funds thousands of NGO companies and projects, scientists that range from urban sustainability, so like smart city type stuff, all the way to biodiversity, which is where we kinda focused, and so how do you scale? And so we've been working with her and her group on scaling up and digitally transforming this area through not only Azure IoT, but how does that work with the research part, there's a lot of machine learning, there's a lot of CAMS, so connecting that into something like Teams, so it's bigger than Azure IoT specifically, as all IoT solutions are, and so...

19:05 PB: Exactly.

19:06 SM: So that... Yeah, so that I got invited to speak about our work.

19:09 PB: Yeah it's interesting. Who do we have on recently... Oh, we were talking to Cory Clarke from RXR, and he was talking about the smart building solutions that they're rolling out for office space and office space post-COVID, and how do you use AI and sensors to detect occupancy and distance from each other and a lot of the core tech around using AI, vision and other things and processing that data, it's all very similar. The core tech is similar, but now we have all these other ways of applying it, whether it's in healthcare or bio-diversity or whatever. And so that's an exciting thing about Microsoft, is a lot of the platform tech that we're doing here gets used in all these different directions. And so you've found a particular slice where obviously there's a super high need and folks should look up and learn more about the poaching problems that are happening in the world, but it's pretty significant.

20:11 PB: And to take some of the tech that has been used for more of the, I don't know, traditional digital transformation that we talk about, but actually using that tech in a really smart way out in the field and the real world to help a problem. That must be pretty satisfying for you as a Microsoft employee. And I guess one of my questions is, that must take up a pretty good chunk of your time, as it should. And so you're doing that and you're also working at Microsoft. And so how do you end up balancing all these things? Is this a... Is that... Give us a little more insight. How do you do that? [laughter]

20:49 SM: Well, I have a very supportive wife who feeds me and makes sure that I eat and...

20:56 PB: Yeah.

20:58 SM: So good question. So when we started to scale, and I clearly... Daisuke and I cannot meet with every NGO to do an... Etcetera. So COVID, in the beginning of this, we did have a very big partnering model. And so we have all these great IoT partners, they've got platforms and just connect these projects to them like we would a startup, a retail startup or something. Unfortunately, the pandemic happened, and of course, as we know, it's all hands on deck to start landing our... Like you just mentioned, the return to work and employees safe. So Daisuke and I had another coffee talk, though virtual, and I said, "You know what? Why don't we use the company Hackathon and make an 80% solution for these folks?"

22:10 SM: That's an easier way. And so we actually got reached out to by a couple of colleagues, one of them was Pamela Cortez and Anders in my group. And they both said, "We'd love to join this because we know what you're doing and we need to figure out how to do the least amount of stuff to have a big impact. And to do that, we need to rely on existing enablement motions and partnerships within other groups. And if we could just build that, then we can roll that out, and off it goes just like anything else."

22:58 PB: Yeah. Well, Microsoft has a great partner network too. So that's the good thing, when we have developers, we have channel partners, we have solution providers, this huge force multiplying engine. It's one of the cool things also about Microsoft is just to get that great idea out there, partners picking it up and amplifying it and landing it locally. So it was good that you took advantage of it. I do wanna make sure people know the... So the aka.ms/project15, is that the go-to place to get the latest?

23:31 SM: That is the place. And then if it can... Down at the bottom there, we have a new link on that page that brings you to the open platform, if you wanna check that out.

23:41 PB: Wow, fantastic. So yeah, let me ask you too, another question. You mentioned COVID-19 and obviously we're all working through that in so many ways. And how has that affected some of your efforts around Project 15 in terms of... Has it been some acceleration in the adoption of technology? Has it slowed down some of these NGOs? Has it...

24:09 SM: This is a multi-faceted answer, so let me think about my words. Okay. So what happened, because now, in the past year, in my private time, and I'm just learning and meeting new people and learning about this space, 'cause I didn't know anything. So if you're somebody who's like me who always wanted to help but didn't think you could, so you just watched, that is not true. All of our skills are welcome and wanted, and a lot of these organizations are non-profits.

24:47 PB: Sure.

24:47 SM: And there's a lot of tech developer groups that you can code for good and get involved on the device level and the software side. So I just wanna put that out there. But what happened was, is that the places where these things are happening, you'll read news articles that poaching accelerated or the lack of tourism has caused some problems. So this space seems to be having the same problems that every other part of the world is having when it comes to learning to adapt to a pandemic world. We weren't exactly affected in terms of getting on the phone at 7 o'clock at night, Pacific Time, to meet with Sonam, who runs the Red Panda network, who's in Nepal, because we were always virtual. And actually, I would... The lack of social life [chuckle] being quarantined probably helped myself, and Daisuke, and Pamela, and Anders when we were cranking out the code and the plan for scale. And so the answer is no.

26:08 SM: One thing that's been... Is a little bit challenging is that I was used to meeting up with our partner architect friends, and we would draw on pieces of paper and we'd talk about smart factories, and then we'd talk about this. And so those kind of conversations got harder, but I did get involved with a Hackathon that came out of Hack-Star and where they were hacking on the OpenCollar project to build the smartest elephant. That's the goal, is to build the smartest elephant collar for Smart Parks. So I just wanted to mention that, is the partner ecosystem is out there, they're doing stuff in this area as well as all the areas. But so it didn't... I don't think it stopped. It's just, at least not...

27:03 PB: Yeah, changed it a little bit.

27:03 SM: For us sitting at the desk, yeah.

27:06 PB: Yeah. Yeah. I hear you. I've definitely missed some of the more serendipitous conversations I've had. Sometimes you... That's where you have the serendipitous meetings and conversations that connect things, and it's been a little more planful maybe in terms of conversations and time. But I know also that there's been a lot of tech acceleration by a lot of companies too, and the whole notion of remote and leveraging the cloud a lot more. So hopefully that does work in your favor. I was gonna mention the... We haven't talked about the tech behind Project 15 too much. You mentioned AI is obviously like big data sets. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I think this sounds like a really exciting potential for 5G/LPWA tech in some form. I know that the... I don't think they've rolled out 5G yet in Nepal, but the idea of some sort of low frequency or low spectrum cellular connections that can blanket those areas is exciting. So that's a follow-on for me. I will actually take that as an action to circle back and see what we can do to help there.

28:20 SM: That's actually one of the... So when it comes to the spectrum of silicon to cloud, I fall squarely into process architecture and designing how you're gonna get this to there, and what are we gonna do and strategy on that. I also fall squarely on data because of my background. When it comes to connectivity, Pamela and Daisuke on the Project 15 meta team, they're really interested in that. But something I noticed is that my assumption that some place like the Himalayas wouldn't have any connectivity or something, that was just my own... I don't know if that's a pre-conception or just like a, "That's the woods and the mountains." However, when we looked into it, and we've been working with some groups in the Caribbean as well that go out into the ocean, it's all got coverage. It may be 2G. There's always a satellite, which then you're gonna bring in some edge, let's compute as much as possible over here at the camera or the gateway. But that was really surprising. So I'm really, I'm interested in... We'll loop back on your response because...

29:45 PB: Yeah, yeah. We'll have to loop back. There's some really interesting things happening, especially if you wanna have... You're designing for very low-bandwidth networks, like low-cost low-bandwidth networks. You actually need to do more processing on the edge, and then it's more of a metadata that's going to the cloud as opposed to the actual streams of video or camera images. So some really fascinating things going on there that I think would be really exciting, not only to land in low-bandwidth networks, but also that also enables some very low power endpoints. So imagine you wanna stick some sensors onto a tree out there somewhere, if you want it solar-powered, you need to keep that power profile really low. So projects like these, not only are they inherently just good, but they are also pushing the tech maybe more-so than the more business-oriented deployments that we have that maybe are a little "easier." These are hard deployments because of some of the different environmental factors. So it's always exciting to see the tech being pushed in that direction.

30:51 SM: I was gonna say, just to jump in. You actually raise... This is a really big deal. There's what we're doing with Project 15, but there's the bigger Microsoft sustainability mission. And so this year if you go out to the Microsoft sustainability web page, we just made a recent announcement about water. There was a really interesting announcement about the circular economy and waste. And so when you start to think about devices... So let's say you come from the more device side of the spectrum of our solutioning. I met a scientist who said something really that stuck with me. "We're trying to save the oceans from plastic using plastic." And so when you start to think about how we make devices. How do we make better batteries? How do we use solar? Like you said...

31:54 PB: Yeah, solar.

31:54 SM: That's when we just kind of was like... We also as a technical community should be thinking about that because it really wasn't purview a year ago. But oh, okay, that makes a lot of sense, I never really thought about that.

32:10 PB: Yeah. No. That's fascinating. I was gonna ask you about that before we... I don't know where we're at on time here, I have to check my clock. But I know we're not traveling any more, but I still stay in touch with BU through their various alumni programs and things. Do you stay in touch with any BU alums or any Boston related things these days? Or...

32:32 SM: Well, I do. I do.

32:33 PB: 'Cause we're pretty far from Boston. People don't know, we're actually in Redmond Washington. It's like the polar opposite of Boston.

32:40 SM: Three thousand miles away. I do, I have friends that I went there with, and I get the magazine. And I get...

32:49 PB: Oh yeah, the magazine.

32:50 SM: I was very proud of, what was it? One of the alums, she was in the Orange is the New Black and I was like, "Whoa, BU!" And of course on LinkedIn I see different things. Actually, speaking of COVID, I saw a really cool video that I thought was very edgy and he did a video about everybody wearing their masks and I was like, "Yes!" But yeah, no, I keep an eye on what's going on there.

33:24 PB: Good.

33:25 SM: So yeah.

33:27 PB: Yeah, no, it's fascinating to see all this stuff, how it's evolving and how we're all sort of connected, right? So now you and I are connected through Boston University, and we didn't even know that so that's fantastic.

33:36 SM: Who knew? T. Anthony's pizza.

33:36 PB: Who knew? T. Anthony's, yeah, I love that place, yeah. Although I don't eat cheese anymore but I still love pizza so... [chuckle] Cool. So any final thoughts Sarah? We... You kind of said that the URL people should go to. What's the call to action here? Where do you want people to go do now they've been sort of educated here?

34:00 SM: We love... When you think about it, if you go out and you get to the Project 15 open platform, for those of us who are very familiar, when you see the architecture you'll say, "Oh, this looks like everything else that is the components of an IoT solution." That is true. I've actually been using it with, met some startups and I said, "Well hey," doing my usual day job, which is, "How do I learn Azure IoT?" And, "Oh, go here, go here. Ask me questions if you have them." So people who are on the coding side of our world, feel free to bug bash that, and any feedback is absolutely welcome. It's really a passion project when you get down to it, which we hope is really useful, and if you do have people who are technical on the scientific side and it's interesting to them and we are building it through Pamela's work with community so that people will be able to get enabled on it. This speaks to the, "How do you do all of this?" Well, I have smart friends. And so yeah, so that really it's out there for you to use. Any feedback is welcome. And yeah, we hope it helps.

35:26 PB: Yeah, I encourage people to go to that website and learn more about it. And Sarah, I really appreciate the time today. I know you're really busy, so carving out a little time here, much appreciated. So hopefully we can actually meet each other in person at some point in the near future. So that'd be great.

35:47 SM: Soon. Soon.

35:48 PB: Soon.

35:48 SM: Wear your masks everybody.

35:51 PB: Exactly.

35:51 SM: Alright. Yeah, no, thank you so much. This has been fun.

35:53 PB: Sure. Okay, cool. Alright, thanks Sarah.

35:57 SM: Thank you.

35:57 PB: Bye bye.

36:00 SM: Bye.

36:00 PB: This is Pete Bernard. You've been listening to the IoT Unicorn Podcast, and thanks for joining us. Stay tuned for the next episode, and feel free to give us some feedback at TheIoTUnicorn@Microsoft.com. Thank you.

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16 episodes