Science for all and all for science

Fellows from the Shuttleworth Foundation visited CERN from 20 to 23 June. The Foundation supports a variety of open source, volunteer-oriented projects tackling humanitarian and scientific problems. It is also the founding sponsor of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre, a partnership between CERN, the UN Institute for Training and Research and the University of Geneva, that enables ordinary citizens to participate in scientific research on the Web.


Open online resources have the potential to break through global economic, social and educational barriers; this was the scope of the discussion among visiting Shuttleworth Fellows and their CERN colleagues. In a round table session on 20 June, they shared information about their open resource projects. From the Shuttleworth Fellows came discussion of P2PU, a peer to peer online University, Siyavula, a project that uses open educational resources in South African schools; the open educational repository, Connexions; creative commons licenses; and ways of making government data more accessible, through the Open Knowledge Foundation. Afterwards, a number of CERN projects were presented, including the Open Access publishing approach for the high-energy physics community, and the CERN-UNESCO initiative for digital libraries in Africa.

Each of these projects fulfils a unique objective, but how exactly do they come about? According to François Grey, coordinator of the Citizen Cyberscience Centre (CCC), these open source projects - and the volunteer computing projects handled by the CCC – tend to be based in western countries. “There’s a lot of potential for these projects in developing regions. Instead of having to invest in an expensive computing centre, an African scientist could access a vast network of computing power through a single server,” explains Grey. “At the CCC we want to make volunteer computing know-how and technology available to scientists worldwide.” CERN is one of the CCC’s core institutional partners, providing it with its “headquarters” in the IT building, while the Shuttleworth Foundation provides the principal sponsorship.

In order to tackle issues of particular relevance to developing worlds, the CCC runs so-called ‘hackfests’. These are sessions that bring together scientists, local people involved in open source software and enthusiastic volunteers to work on a particular problem. According to Grey, “they’re more than just a workshop, because instead of just leaving with an idea, scientists walk away with a prototype of a new project and a network of people who want to help with the project.” These ‘hackfests’ have already gotten a number of projects down the pipeline, including an initiative to monitor deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

These diverse open source and volunteer-computing projects are only a small part of a growing movement to re-engage the public with educational and research content via the web. Through ‘Citizen Science’ projects, audiences around the world are participating in scientific research as never before. “If you provide ordinary citizens with the means and the method, they can participate in real scientific research,” concludes Grey. “The CCC projects enable volunteers to behave like scientists, asking questions and making their own useful and scientifically relevant conclusions.”


When LHC@Home was launched in 2004, it was meant to be a simple public participation project in celebration of the 50th anniversary of CERN. But after only a week online, the project had thousands of computers crunching data. This data turned out to be very useful for LHC engineers and the project continues to run, some 7 years later.

But with the progress of computers and the advent of “Virtual Machine” software – which allows computers to “imitate” different operating systems – there are new LHC questions that could be answered through volunteer computing. A new project, currently known as LHC++@Home, will run high-energy physics simulations on ordinary computers; this is thanks to CernVM, an innovative virtual machine technology developed at CERN. Although currently in its test phase, the project will soon be a way for volunteers to help CERN scientists conduct cutting edge research from the comfort of home.

LHC++@Home will join a multitude of Citizen Science projects already gathering results, including, a ground-breaking computer game which allows players to fold proteins, making a hands-on contribution to the field of protein design; Quake-Catcher Network, a project that links together laptops and computers from around the world to form a vast earthquake monitoring system; and the hugely successful GalaxyZoo, which gives volunteers the opportunity to classify and, occasionally, discover galaxies on their own.


by Katarina Anthony