Thursday, March 4, 2010

Volunteering for a better world: harnessing technology and willing citizens

(From this week's iSGTW)

By using the strengths of distributed computing technologies, both specialized researchers and citizens have the opportunity to participate in a new way of doing science.

We live in a time when nearly all information is available to nearly all people everywhere.

We are entering an age where all types of people can also contribute to many types of information. A school bus driver in rural Romania may be part of a biomedical research project. Or a banker in Los Angeles might moonlight as a collaborator in an astronomy project – classifying galaxies in her spare time.

This new movement in science, called “citizen science,” allows non-specialist volunteers to participate in global research. The projects are as diverse as backyard insect counts (the Firefly citizen science project), studies of how malaria develops and is transmitted ( or prime numbers searches (through PrimeGrid).

The marriage of distributed computing techniques with citizen science represents a potential revolution. It gives scientists access to more resources and makes “cybercitizens” participants in the research process. With a few mouse clicks and 20 minutes to spare a person can elect to aid scores of projects. They can aid as many or as few projects as they like, and their involvement does not damage the performance of their own computer.

Considering the average desktop is idle about 80% of the time, its spare computing cycles represent a large resource. After downloading the needed software, a computer’s spare analytical power is harvested to work on small pieces of a large problem that has been sent from the project’s server. Once completed, the results are sent back to the project. By sharing out large tasks to many computers a distributed “grid” of computers can reduce the time needed to solve complicated problems.

Where to Start?

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