While you are sending an email or surfing the web, your computer could be helping to tackle one of Africa’s major humanitarian challenges, malaria. Africa@home, a project conceived and coordinated by CERN, was launched publicly this week. It is recruiting volunteer computers in homes and offices to run a computer-intensive simulation program called MalariaControl.net, developed by researchers at the Swiss Tropical Institute (STI).
Malaria is responsible for about a million deaths every year in sub-Saharan Africa, and is the single biggest killer in children under five. The MalariaControl.net program is being used to simulate how malaria spreads through Africa. Running the simulations on thousands of volunteer computers will enable researchers to better understand and improve the impact of introducing new treatments.
To install MalariaControl.net, volunteers just need to download the necessary software from the Africa@home website, which will do the scientific calculations in the background, while they are doing something else. The results are regularly returned to a server at the University of Geneva, so that the researchers can evaluate them. Already, in a first test phase over several months with 500 volunteers, Africa@home was able to run simulations equivalent to 150 years of processing time on a single computer.
A key objective of the project was to involve African academic institutions in the development of the software. Thanks to the efforts of NGOs ICVolunteers and Informaticiens sans Frontieres, researchers from the University of Bamako in Mali and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie in Bamako and in Yaoundé, Cameroon, were able to join the project team, which was based at CERN. They were funded by the Geneva International Academic Network (GIAN).
Speaking about the results obtained so far, Prof. Tom Smith of the Swiss Tropical Institute said “Africa@home and volunteer computing really open up new horizons for us scientifically. We have already done more epidemiological modelling in a few months than we could have achieved on our own computer cluster in a few years.”
Dr. Robert Aymar, Director General of CERN, emphasized the importance of knowledge sharing with Africa through such projects “CERN has traditionally been a meeting place for scientists from around the globe, and I am glad that we could host the joint African-European team that launched this project. This underlines our continued commitment to promoting the role of science in the information society, as emphasized at the World Summits on the Information Society in Geneva and Tunis.”
GIAN has just awarded another grant to the Africa@home project, to adapt other applications of significance to Africa to run on volunteer computers. The project will also train technical staff at African universities to manage the servers that run the volunteer computing projects, and help African researchers create their own volunteer computing projects. H.E. Mr. Adama Samassékou, President of ICVolunteers and previously Malian Minister of Education, noted that “getting Africans involved in world-class research like this is a great way to boost the self-esteem of the African scientific community, and putting African institutions at the heart of a worldwide scientific network will be a very concrete step towards bridging the digital divide.”
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