Sunday, January 06, 2008

Donate unused computer time to charity

The World Community Grid is a simple way for individuals to make a difference by donating unused time on their personal or business computers to charity, specifically to scientific research into health, environment, malaria, and AIDS research.

Why bother?

Think of this as a no-effort, no-cost way to provide the most advanced technology yet known to reduce scientific research that would otherwise take many years to complete to just a few months.

Only 5-10% of the available resources of standard notebook and desktop computers are used on a daily basis. Whenever someone leaves their computer for a few moments, attends a meeting, or otherwise leaves their computer turned on but not active with work is, in effect, a waste of valuable resources. The idea behind grid computing is not only to use some of that wasted time and resources but to coordinate those resources in tasks that go far beyond what the most advanced super computers can perform, simply by harnessing many simpler computers together.

How does it work?

Technically, all one has to do is register online with the World Community Grid, download and install a small "agent" software program on your computer, and then, well, nothing else. Whenever your computer is idle, the agent will request information on a specific project from the server, perform calculations, and then send data back to the server.

Is it safe?

The short answer to this question is Yes. The most recent agents use SSL for encrypted communications between the client and server.

How do I know what I've contributed?

If you are like me, you will want to see what your donation is actually doing. This is accomplished by opening up the front-end of the agent software on your system and then viewing the results. On my personal computer's Windows Vista operating system, the agent software is called BOINC for Windows (The World Community Grid doesn't write this software - grid computing can be used for many purposes; I've just chosen to highlight charitable research. BOINC stands for Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing). The BOINC client tells me the project and the tasks/applications underway, lists messages between client and server, provides overall statistics, and shows a graphic of overall disk usage.

The Point System

In the BOINC client - because it is a generic piece of grid computing software - you won't see the World Community Grid's point system. It is the point system that tells you what contributions you have made both as an individual and as a member of a specific team. Being a member of a team, such as Cancer Fighters, gives you that added emotional boost of seeing how a group of people can make a difference.

But to get your individual and team statistics, you'll have to use the task tab's link to My Grid which will then take you to the web site where you can see how many points you've generated, your ranking among everyone participating worldwide, and providing a link to your team's web site. There is also a link to your team statistics - my current team is the American Cancer Society's Cancer Fighters (although I will likely change this in the near future).

Will my computer's performance be affected?

The BOINC client allows the individual to create preferences for how their computer resources will be allocated, including, for example, whether or not to allow grid computing when on battery power for notebooks. There are specifications for when to start computing after the computer has been idle, day of week overrides, multiprocessor settings, switching between specific project applications, network connectivity options, even disk and memory usage constraints. The defaults generally do not affect performance. If you are concerned, though, you can always use the agent software to suspend or abort any task at any time.

Who are the current partners in Canada?

Apart from the host technology company, IBM, there are currently only 10 Canadian partner organizations. This is something I want to change...quickly. Here is a list of the Canadian partner organizations:

  • AIDS Committee of Toronto

  • Centre de recherche informatique de Montreal

  • York University

  • United OneHeart Foundation

  • UserFriendly.Org

  • Junior Achievement of Canada


  • York Technology Association

  • Canadian Information Processing Society

  • Information Technology Association of Canada

Congratulations to these partner organizations - but we can do even better in Canada, can't we? Currently, Europe has, by far, the largest number of individual members donating resources.

Ironically, one of the most recent World Community Grid projects - Help Conquer Cancer - is headed by Igor Jurisica of the Ontario Cancer Institute (Princess Margaret Hospital and the University Health Network)). So joining the grid as either an individual member or as a partner will immediately benefit Canadian cancer research.

Partner obligations are simple:

  • post World Community Grid information and logo on your website

  • encourage individuals within your organization to join as members

  • create a team and install World Community Grid on a minimum of 10 computers

  • electronically accept the Trademark License Agreement

Are there any presentations available?

  • The following link provides a 2-minute video into how the technology works (it was produced in November 2004 and doesn't mention some of the newer projects).

  • Or, if you prefer a slide presentation about becoming a partner organization, you can see how it works here (last updated 17-Sep-2007).

  • If you like podcasts, listen to this overview of grid computing.

  • Here is an IBM PDF overview.

  • Finally, an interview with Dr. David Foran, a scientist with the Help Defeat Cancer project.

Unused computer processing may well constitute the single largest untapped resource available to humanity today. Let's leverage that resource wisely and charitably.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article