Anthony Doesburg: Virtual thinkers solving real world problems

By Anthony Doesburg

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Citizen cyberscience is a grass-roots initiative that harnesses the power of online volunteers.

A group of scientific thinkers who usually gather in the virtual world got together in London for the first Citizen Cyberscience Summit.

About 100 professional and amateur scientists from around the world met for two days in a former dissection room at King's College on the Strand to examine progress in and the potential of internet-based citizen science.

Progress so far is impressive, including the discovery of new space objects and protein structures. And there is also the potential to provide free computing power to scientists in poor parts of the world.

The summit was organised by the year-old Citizen Cyberscience Centre based at Cern, home of the large hadron collider, in Geneva.

"The [centre] partnership is about promoting volunteer computing and volunteer thinking - things we refer to collectively as citizen cyberscience," says centre co-ordinator Francois Grey.

Cern, the European particle physics lab, woke up to the phenomenon in 2004 when it launched its own volunteer computing project to simulate the behaviour of the large hadron collider, which was still in development. Grey says participation in the project went "viral".

People began downloading and running software on a home PC connected to Cern via the internet, with so many taking part that the project's servers were swamped.

The other eye-opener was the amount of processing grunt it gave the project, dubbed LHC@home. It was more than Cern's physicists could have bought, and has since become an indispensable tool.

"In discussion with several colleagues we realised there was an opportunity here to do something for the developing world and, in particular, for scientists in the developing world," Grey says.

"It gives scientists access to computing power and potentially assistance in helping them analyse data that they could never afford otherwise."

Things flowed from there. With the Swiss Tropical Institute and a number of African universities, they created Africa@home, to support volunteer computing projects in Africa, which Grey says has been very successful. Next, the Citizen Cyberscience Centre was set up.

The summit is the first major international event the centre has helped to launch, says Grey, and will attempt to draft a citizen cyberscience manifesto.

It won't be big in physical attendee numbers - the restored 19th-century anatomy theatre venue holds about 100 people - but will be streamed over the internet. Speakers are a mix of scientists and volunteers whose perspective is sought on what makes projects compelling.

"This whole field is a grassroots phenomenon so there's no overarching organisation. It's not like supercomputing, where there are large amounts of investment."

That's not to say the computer industry isn't getting in behind citizen cyberscience. American giants IBM and Hewlett-Packard are backers, as is the South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, started by software multimillionaire Mark Shuttleworth.

Grey, who receives a fellowship from the foundation, says it is interested in promoting education and open-source software in the developing world.

Many volunteer computing projects rely on open-source BOINC software that was developed for the SETI@home project, which for years has been scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

While volunteer computing simply makes use of idle home computers, volunteer thinking takes a bit more effort. An example is Foldit, which involves participants working out protein structures.

"Part of what we want the event to show is that there is real science coming out of this. Foldit published a major paper in Nature which I think really struck a chord.

"Many people who didn't know about the project were stunned by the results that the volunteers had managed to get, and it drives home the idea that sometimes humans, especially groups working together, can find completely new solutions to problems that computers can't."

Among those Grey calls "superstar" scientists at the summit is Bruce Allen, who initiated Einstein@home, which recently discovered new types of quasars, or galaxies. Allen was a student of cosmologist Stephen Hawking and is director of the Max Planck Institute of Gravitational Physics.

Chairing a session is cyberscience celebrity Hanny van Arkel of the Netherlands, a biology teacher whose claim to fame is discovery of a heavenly body now known as Hanny's Voorwerp (Dutch for "object").

Van Arkel is one of a quarter of a million participants in a volunteer thinking project, Galaxy Zoo, which involves classifying the shapes of galaxies seen in computerised images.

Van Arkel stumbled across an object astronomers hadn't previously noticed.

Meanwhile, Aucklander Renton Innes, part of the Foldit community written about in Nature, is also taking part in the summit.

But without a passport or funds to get to London, Innes is making do with being there virtually.

"I am certainly tuning in," he said.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist.

citizencyberscience.net/summit/

- NZ Herald

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