Computers of the world, unite

The Swiss Tropical Institute needs you to fight malaria

Published July 18, 2006 5:43PM (EDT)

At first glance, the map of computer hosts participating in the "volunteer computing" project is a near perfect graphic representation of the unequal distribution of wealth on the planet Earth. Europe, the United States and Japan are thick clusters of black dots. India, Australia and Brazil make respectable showings. There's some action on China's coast.

Africa, for the most part, is an empty wasteland.

"Volunteer computing" projects link together idle computers connected to the Internet to create virtual supercomputers that can tackle massive computation problems. Anyone can download a free software program, install it, and start participating. The most famous project is Seti@Home, in which hundreds of thousands of computers crunch astronomical data looking for extraterrestrial life., which aims to model climate trends, is another prominent project. Naturally, since computer use is highest in economically developed regions, you get more volunteers in rich countries than poor. So, while pretty, there's nothing immediately surprising about the clusters of dots on's user map.

But there's another, more provocative way to look at that map. It also demonstrates the potential for a global redistribution of wealth, at least as defined by computing power. Such is the implicit goal of a recent entry into the "volunteer computing" sweepstakes, Developed by the Swiss Tropical Institute, aims to use distributed volunteer computing to create "simulation models of the transmission dynamics and health effects of malaria." The institute already devotes about 40 in-house computers to crunching epidemiological data and creating models, "but far more computing power is required to validate such models and to adequately simulate the full range of interventions and transmission patterns relevant for malaria control in Africa."

As a video snippet from blazing-eyed Senegalese singer Youssou D'Nour declares on the Web site, "If you download this program you can save lives. It's real important. IMPORTANT."

Searching for extraterrestrials might seem like a sci-fi affectation, but participating in a project aimed at addressing the devastation wrought by malaria in Africa carries with it a different flavor. I tried to join up this morning, but yesterday the project temporarily stopped accepting new accounts, having reached the limits of its capability to absorb new users.

This pleased me. The Internet often gets a bad rap from critics of globalization, who are alarmed at how advances in computing and communication technologies have contributed to the acceleration of outsourcing and offshoring and ever-more-ferocious competition between the digitally connected workers of the world. But the spread of voluntary computing into socially meaningful arenas is a positive example of what the Internet does best -- promote collaboration and cooperation., as well as and Seti@Home and a score of other fascinating projects all use the same "middleware" software program to link together volunteer computers, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networking Computing, developed and administered just a few miles from my home. BOINC is an open-source software program, collaboratively developed by people all over the world and free to anyone to use, copy or modify.

When I was covering the open-source and free-software movement full-time as a reporter in the late '90s, it often seemed to me that the worldwide spread of software programs like Linux and Apache was a mechanism for transferring wealth from North to South. Programmers in Europe and the United States and elsewhere donated their effort and skills to creating free tools that the whole world could use. The spread of voluntary computing networks, built with open-source software, is a further elaboration of that principle.

So look at that map again -- it's not merely a graphic representation of wealth and power. In the context of tackling the epidemiology of malaria control, it also symbolizes another, quite different concept: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Africa Globalization How The World Works