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Home > iSGTW 3 March 2010 > Feature - Volunteering for a better world

Opinion - Volunteering for a better world: harnessing technology and willing citizens


Firefly in the daytime. Image courtesy Museum of Science, Boston.

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 (MalariaControl.net) 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.

In the Galaxy Zoo project, everyday citizens can help astronomers do things such as catch exploding stars, or  supernovae. Data for the site is provided by an automatic survey in California, at the world-famous Palomar Observatory. Image courtesy Galaxy Zoo Supernovae 

Where to start

Many of these projects use the common software platform BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). The BOINC webpages point to nearly 50 projects, coming many domains including climate change, astrophysics, earthquake monitoring, epidemiology and searches for extraterrestrial life. These count among them Rosetta@home, Climate prediction.net, Einstein@home, LHC@home, Chess960@home including the well-known SETI@home. BOINC’s volunteers, number about a third of a million people, donate an average of 4,540.83 TeraFLOPS in 24 hours.

Other portals leading to multiple applications include World Community Grid and EDGeS. World Community Grid, sponsored by IBM, with nearly half a million members, collects humanitarian and medical applications such as Nutritious Rice for the World and FightAIDS@home.

The EDGeS project, or Enabling Desktop Grids for e-Science, allows information to pass between desktop grids based on BOINC, and service grids (publicly funded grids of connected computing clusters) such as Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE.) This makes it possible both for volunteers to contribute to applications on service grids and for researchers to put their service grid applications on volunteer, desktop grid systems.

Human computing – distributed thinking

An intriguing sub-variety of volunteer projects call for “volunteer thinking.” These projects that share out tasks which require human intelligence for accurate processing.

Through Galaxy Zoo, volunteers classify images of the near quarter million galaxies that have been collected through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The human brain is able to recognize shape and type much more quickly and accurately than any computer. This work helps astronomers understand how galaxies form.

AfricaMap, a UNOSAT project (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Program), will give volunteers satellite images of rural Africa, who will mark roads, bridges, human settlements, rivers, agriculture fields, barren fields and more. This will update old maps and create maps for areas where they did not exist before.

This project, and others like it, are being collected under the umbrella of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a partnership of the University of Geneva, the UN Institute for Training and Research and CERN, Europe’s center for physics research, to help regional authorities, humanitarian workers and scientists. Accurate maps will help aid workers reach needy areas and will track the progress of climate change.

Specialized researchers and volunteer citizens can now collaborate on some of the world’s most serious problems. The internet and the Web led to a revolution in the way we access and use information. These tools, coupled with distributing computing technologies, may be ushering in a research revolution as well.

—Danielle Vention, EGEE, is a former iSGTW editor

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