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A problem shared: how World Community Grid volunteers are powering scientific research

Louise Sheeran

Developing drugs for deadly diseases. Designing sustainable sources of energy. Discovering ways to preserve natural resources. We do all of this without lifting a finger.

That’s because we’re hooked up to IBM’s World Community Grid – a philanthropic initiative that enables anyone with a computer or Android device to donate unused processing power to scientific research on health, poverty and sustainability.

And we’re delighted by the news that World Community Grid has won the 2016 Webby People's Voice Award in the Corporate Social Responsibility category. The “Webbys” honour all that is wonderful, weird and world-changing on the internet. In the spirit of the open web, the People’s Voice winner is voted for by the public, making it all the more special.

Sharing the load

It’s obvious that when developing solutions to humankind’s biggest problems, many hands are better than one. With research budgets shrinking and many threats to vulnerable communities standing firm, some of our brightest scientists face serious barriers to achieving their goals. World Community Grid provides a simple solution.

A single scientist or research team may have a big idea and the insight to change lives. But in isolation, they often lack the resources to get the job off the ground; they could spend a lifetime testing millions of initial hypotheses, just to get to the point where their research can begin in earnest. Computer modeling can speed up this process by systematically identifying only the most promising options. But it requires access to a supercomputer – a rare and expensive beast.

Instead, World Community Grid brings together hundreds of thousands of volunteers from around the globe – many virtual “hands”, if you like – to share the load, harnessing unused computing power from their devices. Like bees in a hive, each volunteer performs a tiny but crucial role in shaping the bigger picture.

Becoming one of these volunteers couldn’t be easier. Beyond the minutes it takes to download the application to your computer or smartphone, there is zero effort involved. When you’re not using the device at full capacity – say, when you’re reading this blog, texting a friend or out for lunch – it connects to World Community Grid. The Grid sends a tiny virtual experiment to each available volunteer device in the network, then retrieves the results so that scientists can interrogate them for patterns. And thus, the scientist gets several leaps closer to that life-changing solution – in a fraction of the time.

A global movement at your fingertips

World Community Grid volunteers are never just checking their emails, just making coffee, just sleeping. That’s the beauty of it. While they work, rest and play, they’re busy laying the groundwork for cutting-edge humanitarian research.

You may be a complete technophobe. You may know nothing about the way life-saving drugs are developed. No matter. All you need is a device and a desire to help. The app quietly does all the work while you carry on with your life – complete with that little glow that comes from knowing you are part of a global movement that is helping pioneering scientists to push boundaries and accelerate vital breakthroughs by decades.

And what a movement. As you read this, volunteers are helping hunt for life-saving antiviral Ebola drugs. They’re helping identify genetic markers to predict cancer earlier. They’re helping discover new, more efficient materials for solar energy.

All in all, World Community Grid volunteers have completed over a million years’ computing in just 11 years. It’s no surprise that the voting public was impressed.

Generation share

The time is ripe for initiatives like World Community Grid; the sharing economy is booming. A socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human, physical and intellectual resources, this collaborative mindset is becoming second nature for a generation that is increasingly mindful of limited resources and frustrated by global inequality.

As “generation share”, we rent out our spare rooms through Airbnb. We join car-sharing clubs. We redistribute unwanted household items through Freecycle. We donate to Kickstarter movements. It makes sense, then, to offer up our idle processing power, which would otherwise be lost in the ether. Speaking of which, why not become a volunteer today?

Spreading the word

We’re proud to have worked closely with the World Community Grid team to help shape the initiative’s identity and spread the word. We’ve crafted creative concepts, messaging and awareness campaigns, and our Spark team has helped transform the Grid’s online presence. The clean, engaging and responsive new website encourages users to learn what makes the initiative great at their own pace, and makes it simple to join: 25% more visitors now sign up to become volunteers.

Nearly 13,000 organisations applied for a Webby nomination this year, and almost 2.5 million people voted for the People's Voice. The World Communtity Grid team will receive the much-deserved accolade at a star-studded ceremony tonight, 16 May, in New York.

When the award-winning team downs tools and heads off to the ceremony, they’ll be receiving recognition for a phenomenal achievement – while simultaneously helping lay foundations of another.