Idle Home Computers Being Tapped For Global Social Innovation Solutions

Charity Engine is a social innovation not-for-profit organisation that was created to enable millions of home PCs to raise millions of dollars for the best possible causes, all thanks to spare computing power that nobody is using. When our PCs are not being used, their processors help with various science or business projects. The money from companies paying to use the Charity Engine grid of computers is split between charities and used as prize money for those that sign up.

Charity Engine takes big, expensive computing jobs and divides them into small pieces; each simple enough for a home PC to work on as a background task. Once each home computer has finished its part of the puzzle, it sends back the correct answer and earns some funds for charity. Charity Engine® is based on Berkeley University's BOINC software; used by dozens of famous 'citizen science' projects such as SETI@home and the BBC's It has been safely downloaded over six million times and nearly half a million PCs are running it right now! The Charity Engine’s version of BOINC is strictly limited: the research applications cannot access personal data in any way. It is very energy-efficient and typically consumes less power than charging a phone.

The central processing units in modern computers chips are very powerful, completing tasks quickly and solving problems. Yet, many modern processors spend about 80 per cent of its time doing nothing. Now many distributed computing projects have tapped into this vast number of idle machines using software that runs when the machine is not in use. It’s known as ‘volunteer computing’ and lots of different projects call on idle machines to help sort through large amounts of data or try out different social innovation solutions to a particular problem.

Sometimes the only way to tackle a particular problem is to use a supercomputer, which is expensive. However, volunteer computing is cheaper and when 500,000 or so machines are used, they have the same computational power as top supercomputer and in fact have the potential to be more powerful than those single machines. Volunteer computing has solved scientific problems as diverse as climate modelling, fundamental physics and protein folding. Charity Engine says, "Polls of computer owners suggest that about 5 per cent of them, when told about volunteer computing, want to participate. So, with roughly one and a half billion PCs in the world, there should 75 million computers instead of half a million."

Though the rewards for volunteering a computer to help with a scientific project are hard to appreciate and many people dropped out or never re-installed the software when they upgraded or got a new computer. One of the challenges to this social innovation initiative is motivating people. Charity Engine's links with Oxfam, Water Aid, Action Aid and others to inspire people showing that participation would help to fund positive works. Looking at this idea, it seems together, our PCs can change the world – one bit at a time.