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iSGTW Feature - At home in Africa: African scientists plug into the global computer

 

Feature - @home in Africa: African scientists plug into the global computer


During last week’s hands-on AFRICA@home workshop African scientists installed servers and set up a new volunteer computing project. This tangible experience allows them to harness the power of volunteer computers across the globe to support research into major issues affecting Africa.
Image courtesy of AFRICA@home

Volunteer computing projects like SETI@home, Einstein@home and LHC@home are providing scientists with huge computing resources, donated by the public.

So, imagine what African scientists could do if they could tap into the power of the millions of idle computers around the world...

Sounds crazy? In fact, this was the subject of a workshop held 16-22 July at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, South Africa. The workshop’s 35 participants came from 18 African countries and were selected from scores of applications.

Possibilities for Africa

Can African scientists really benefit from volunteer computing? One of the workshop’s teachers, Ben Segal of CERN, thinks so.

“The point is that you don’t need a massive data center or enormous Internet bandwidth to run a volunteer computing project, just a decent server and reasonable connectivity. Many African universities have this,” he says.

How easy can it be? In just a few days, the participants at this very hands-on workshop were able to get a volunteer computing project running on a server that they had installed themselves.

Last month’s workshop on volunteer computing, held at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg, South Africa, gathered 35 participants from 18 African countries as well as teachers from all over the world.
Image courtesy of AIMS

Projects with massive potential

The participants were also encouraged to think of ways to apply this technology—which relies on open source software called BOINC—to develop new volunteer computing projects for their own institutes and universities.

The prize for the best project proposal was awarded to two scientists, both from the University of Khartoum in Sudan, for a project that models the epidemiology of leishmaniasis, a sometimes fatal disease spread by sand flies.

The workshop was organized by the AFRICA@home partnership, which is funded by the Geneva International Academic Network and involves CERN, the World Health Organization, the Swiss Tropical Institute, the University of Geneva and the NGO ICVolunteers.

Jan Groenewald coordinated the workshop for AIMS and is enthusiastic about South Africa’s role in this initiative.

“Our institute has a mission to promote science and mathematics throughout Africa, and volunteer computing is a great way to do this.” he remarks. “This is not just about accessing computing power; it’s about getting the general public interested and engaged in real science.”

For Angelina Lutambi of Tanzania, the workshop was also a chance to share knowledge.

“The region where I come from was one of the first places where people started dying from HIV/AIDS”, she says.

“Models can save lives. We can use modeling to help the public. With what I’ve learned at this workshop I feel that I can create my own volunteer computing applications back home. It’s been very useful for me to meet other people working on similar issues.” 

The flagship AFRICA@home application is MalariaControl.net, a computer model for malaria epidemiology that can use thousands of volunteer computers to complete in a few months what would normally take up to 40 years.

- Francois Grey, CERN

 

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