Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking at a TEDx conference, where I explained the concept of citizen science to a very receptive and enthusiastic audience. Check it out, and please share it with your networks!
Some diseases get more headlines than others, for reasons having to do with news cycles, politics, and interest groups. One disease that ought to be getting much more press is malaria.
Malaria is typically spread by mosquitos, and is common in tropical and subtropical climates. Estimates on spread and mortality vary greatly, in part because poorer (and harder to track) populations tend to suffer disproportionately from the affliction. However, the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Malaria Report suggests that at least 655,000 people died from malaria in 2010, while a 2012 study in The Lancet suggests that the figure is actually closer to 1,238,000.
From a citizen science perspective, you can help combat malaria by helping researchers understand it. By downloading the BOINC client (explained in this post), you can contribute computer time to the Malaria Control project.
The project is designed to model the best ways to fight malaria, by analyzing databases of health system descriptions, intervention costing, and vector bionomics, and testing various approaches in simulations. The goal is to find the most effective way to fight the disease while reducing costs, and more importantly, reducing the risk of creating new, resistant strains of malaria.
To participate, simply download and install the BOINC client, and then set your configuration options in the software to dedicate time to the Malaria Control project. Your computer will do the rest.
The Malaria Control project is managed by the Swiss Tropical Institute, and is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
By far the easiest way to get involved with a citizen science project is to let your computer do all the work: sign up for a so-called distributed computing project, install and configure some software, and voila! You’re contributing valuable CPU time to an important cause, and you don’t even have to break a sweat.
Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the concept of distributed computing, why it’s important, and then I’ll point you to one of the major platforms being used to do distributed computing.
Prior to the advent of distributed computing, researchers with big projects requiring a lot of computer power had to try to score time on their university’s super computer. As you might imagine, competition for a time slot was fierce: there were lots of problems requiring lots of computer cycles, and resources were limited. You could wait weeks or months for a slot that might or might not be long enough to accomplish your project goals, and heaven forbid something should go wrong with the system in the meantime, as that would mean further delays.
Then along came the rise of personal computing. While home computers certainly aren’t super computers, they are reasonably powerful, and more to the point, unless the user is actively playing an intensive PC game or rendering 3d movies, the CPU is actually idle most of the time. Someone lit upon the idea of harnessing all of those idle CPU cycles, and “distributed computing” was born.
The concept is this: break up a very large project into millions of smaller tasks, and then hand off those tasks to thousands of computers.You still need a decent server to communicate with all the remote devices, and a robust software program to coordinate all of those tasks, but both of these were cheaper to implement than additional super computer time.
The most popular distributed computing platform is called BOINC. The short form stands for the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, and it was originally developed to support the SETI@home project (a program designed to analyze radio signals, searching for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence). First started in 2002, the platform currently has more than 295,000 volunteers running the program on just under 1 million computers. That might sound like a lot, and indeed it provides projects with a fairly spectacular amount of computational power. However, it’s really only scratching the surface of what’s available. Think of it: how many computers do you have in your home alone? How many are in your office?
BOINC currently supports just over 40 projects, which I’ll cover in separate posts. But you don’t have to wait for me… go ahead and check out the software and see if there’s something you’d like to help out!
Earthquakes remain a major hazard, and our ability to predict them is still pretty limited. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) hopes to change all of that, and you can help.
The QCN wants to build the world’s largest, low-cost, strong-motion seismic network. It’s doing that by having people like you install sensors in and attached to your Internet-connected computer. The idea is that by having more sensors in more locations, we’ll get a much more detailed picture of how and when earthquakes happen.
All you have to do is order a sensor, install it (preferably mounted on your floor and connected by a USB cable to your desktop computer), and install the software. If you should experience an earthquake, the sensor will record the data, and send it to the QCN.
If you live in a high-risk area, like near the San Andreas fault, for example, you can probably get a sensor for free. K-12 classrooms can order one for a nominal fee of $5, and everyone else can get one for $49. This is one of the few projects featured on the Citizen Science Center blog that requires participants to pay to participate. However, given the economic impact a single earthquake can have (the recent Tohoku earthquake and tsunami was estimated to cost around $300 billion), to say nothing of the human toll, $49 doesn’t seem like a lot to spend.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in learning more about earthquakes, the QCN provides some lessons and activities you can download. These are geared to K-12 students, but they would be a good starting point, and they are useful for homeschoolers too.