Sunday, 9 December 2007


Here's an interesting piece from the Economist on volunteer distributed computing. It discusses how the world's idle computing power can be harnessed for public good, by using them to work on time-consuming and repetitive tasks simultaneously.

In the past, these projects were only used for scientific endeavours - such as modelling the physical properties of proteins or scanning radio signals for signs of extra-terrestrial life. The numbers of people taking part is vast: 5.2 million people are registered with SETI@home.

A new set of volunteer computing projects is now emerging. They:
  • Tackle non-scientific problems: Africa@home and the World Community Grid are both dedicated to international philanthropy
  • Employ participants' brains as much as their computing power: The ESP Game and Herbaria@home get participants to do things which computers find difficult.
Africa@home will soon launch a project which will ask participants to look at satellite images of poorly-mapped regions of Africa and ask them to identify cartographic information, such as roads, villages and fields. If successful this would obviously have huge potential for governments, aid agencies and climate change scientists.

There must be plenty of other ways in which volunteer computing could be used for international development. Here are some ideas:
  • Identifying trends in local markets to help people know when they will get the most favourable price
  • Identifying trends in population dynamics and migration following conflict or disaster
  • Identifying trends in the way diseases spread amongst different groups

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