François Grey argues that the internet is enabling a new era of citizen science.

I first met Rytis Slatkevicius in 2006, when he was 18. At the time, he had assembled the world's largest database of prime numbers. He had done this by harnessing the spare processing power of computers belonging to thousands of prime-number enthusiasts, using the internet.

Today, Rytis is a mild-mannered MBA student by day and an avid prime-number sleuth by night. His project, called PrimeGrid, is tackling a host of numerical challenges, such as finding the longest arithmetic progression of prime numbers (the current record is 25). Professional mathematicians now eagerly collaborate with Rytis, to analyse the gems that his volunteers dig up. Yet he funds his project by selling PrimeGrid mugs and t-shirts. In short, Rytis and his online volunteers are a web-enabled version of a venerable tradition: they are citizen scientists.

There are nearly 100 science projects using such volunteer computing. Like PrimeGrid, most are based on an open-source software platform called BOINC (CERN Courier September 2004 p62). Many address topical themes, such as modelling climate change (, developing drugs for AIDS (FightAids@home), or simulating the spread of malaria ( (CERN Courier September 2006 p62).

Fundamental science projects are also well represented. Einstein@Home analyses data from gravitational wave detectors, MilkyWay@Home simulates galactic evolution, and LHC@home studies accelerator beam dynamics. Each of these projects has easily attracted tens of thousands of volunteers.

Just what motivates people to participate in projects like these? One reason is community. BOINC provides enthusiastic volunteers with message boards to chat with each other, and share information about the science behind the project. This is strikingly similar to the sort of social networking that happens on websites such as Facebook, but with a scientific twist.

Another incentive is BOINC's credit system, which measures how much processing each volunteer has done – turning the project into an online game where they can compete as individuals or in teams. Again, there are obvious analogies with popular online games such as Second Life.

Brains vs processors

A new wave of online science projects, which can be described as volunteer thinking, takes the idea of participative science to a higher level. A popular example is the project GalaxyZoo, where volunteers can classify images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as either elliptical or spiral, via a simple web interface. In a matter of months, some 100,000 volunteers classified more than 1 million galaxies. People do this sort of pattern recognition more accurately than any computer algorithm. And by asking many volunteers to classify the same image, their statistical average proves to be more accurate than even a professional astronomer.

When I mentioned this project to a seasoned high-energy physicist, he remarked wistfully, "Ah, yes, reminds me of the scanning girls". High-energy physics data analysis used to involve teams of young women manually analysing particle tracks. But these were salaried workers who required office space. Volunteer thinking expands this kind of assistance to millions of enthusiasts on the web at no cost.

Going one step farther in interactivity, the project Foldit is an online game that scores a player's ability to fold a protein molecule into a minimal-energy structure. Through a nifty web interface, players can shake, wiggle and stretch different parts of the molecule. Again, people are often much faster at this task than computers, because of their aptitude to reason in three dimensions. And the best protein folders are usually teenage gaming enthusiasts rather than trained biochemists.

Who can benefit from this web-based boom in citizen science? In my view, scientists in the developing world stand to gain most by effectively plugging in to philanthropic resources: the computers and brains of supportive citizens, primarily those in industrialized countries with the necessary equipment and leisure time. A project called Africa@home, which I've been involved in, has trained dozens of African scientists to use BOINC. Some are already developing new volunteer-thinking projects, and a first African BOINC server is running at the University of Cape Town.

A new initiative called Asia@home was launched last month with a workshop at Academia Sinica in Taipei and a seminar at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing, to drum up interest in that region. Asia represents an enormous potential, in terms of both the numbers of people with internet access (more Chinese are now online than Americans) and the high levels of education and interest in science.

To encourage such initiatives further, CERN, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva are planning to establish a Citizen Cyberscience Centre. This will help disseminate volunteer computing in the developing world and encourage new technical approaches. For example, as mobile phones become more powerful they, too, can surely be harnessed. There are about one billion internet connections on the planet and three billion mobile phones. That represents a huge opportunity for citizen science.

About the author
François Grey is a visiting professor at Tsinghua University

Date and Place:
16-17 April 2009
3F, Building for Humanities and Social Science, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan

Background for the workshop:
Volunteer computing is an established technology that enables ordinary citizens around the globe to contribute to important challenges in fundamental science and medicine, by providing idle time on their PCs and even partaking in data analysis via the Internet. For scientists, volunteer computing represents a free and essentially unlimited computing resource. Made popular already a decade ago by the screensaver project SETI@home, volunteer computing now counts over 50 projects running in a wide variety of scientific domains, including climate change, astrophysics earthquake monitoring and epidemiology. Several million volunteers are contributing to such projects, many of which use a common software platform called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). However, so far almost all these projects have been launched by scientists in North America and Europe. Therefore, this workshop aims to increase awareness of volunteer computing more widely in Asia.

Scope of the workshop:
The objective of the two-day Asia@home workshop is to introduce the technologies underlying volunteer computing to scientists in Asia, who are interested to use volunteer computing as a tool in their future research. The workshop takes a hands-on approach, mixing lectures by leading developers of volunteer computing software with case studies by scientists who have been applying it in a number of fields. In addition, topics such as the interfacing of Grid computing and cloud computing with volunteer computing will be addressed, with demos of practical solutions. The participants will be tutored in several aspects of volunteer computing, including how to adapt existing code to run in volunteer mode using BOINC, how to install a server for volunteer computing, and new trends in “volunteer thinking” projects where the volunteer does data analysis via a web interface, using a new software platform called Bossa. A detailed programme and list of confirmed lecturers is provided below.

Organized by:
Academia Sinica Grid Computing in conjunction with the International Symposium on Grid Computing (ISGC 2009, 21-23 April 2009, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan

Please register for this workshop via the online registration form on the ISGC 2009 web pages before April 14th 2009. Please note that participation in the workshop is free of charge, but the organizers reserve the right to limit numbers of participants, if necessary for practical reasons. So to ensure your participation, please register early.

Participant Support:
Participants are expected to cover their travel and accommodation costs at Academia Sinica. Depending on external sponsorship opportunities that have not yet been confirmed, the organizers may be able to support a few participants from developing countries in the region. Please indicate if you need such support when applying.

16th April 2009 (Thursday)

Conference Room 2
08:30 Registration
09:00 Welcome
Simon C. LIN, ASGC, TW
09:05 Introduction to the workshop and its objectives
09:15 Introduction to volunteer computing and BOINC
David ANDERSON, U.C. Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, USA
10:00 Hands-on exercise: Familiarization with the BOINC client
10:45 Coffee break
11:00 Case study 1: Africa@home
Christian PELLEGRINI, University of Geneva, CH
11:30 Case study 2: LHC@home
11:30 Open session
(Participants invited to briefly present their volunteer computing plans and ideas)
12:00 Q&A
12:30 Lunch (Recreation Hall, 4F)
14:00 Introduction to the BOINC software
David ANDERSON, U.C. Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, USA
15:15 Coffee break
15:30 Hands-on exercise: Creating a BOINC project
17:30 End of session
18:00 Asia@home Dinner

17th April 2009 (Friday)
Conference Room 2
09:00 Case study 3:
Nicolas MAIRE, Swiss Tropical Institute, CH
09:30 Case study 4: Jarifa and Extremadura@home
Daniel Lombraña González, ES
10:00 Coffee Break
10:30 EDGeS: Interconnecting Desktop and Service Grids
12:30 Lunch (Recreation Hall, 4F)
13:30 BOINC and Cloud Computing
Derrick Kondo, INRIA, FR
14:00 Cloud Computing Demo
Derrick Kondo, INRIA, FR
14:30 Volunteer Thinking and Bossa 
David ANDERSON, U.C. Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, USA
15:15 Case Study 5: Africa Map
15:45 Coffee Break
16:15 Hands-on exercise: Working with Bossa
17:00 Q&A
17:15 Workshop Evaluation
17:30 End of Workshop

David Anderson University of California at Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory
Peter Kacsuk MTA SZTAKI, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Jozsef Kovacs MTA SZTAKI, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Derrick Kondo INRIA, Grenoble
Nicolas Maire Swiss Tropical Institute, Basel
Ben Segal CERN, Geneva
Daniel Lombraña González University of Extremadura, Spain
Ana Gago da Silva UNOSAT, UN Institute for Training and Research, CERN
Christian Pellegrini University Center for Informatics, University of Geneva

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