Fresh perspectives for a better world

While it’s no surprise that technology has the ability to change the world, it sometimes changes it in surprising ways. The Citizen Cyberscience Centre project is promoting change for humanitarian causes through distributed volunteer initiatives, such as volunteer computing and ‘volunteer thinking’. The inaugural lecture of a planned series was held at CERN in late October.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and CERN have recently set up a new partnership and launched a lecture series, which will invite experts in the humanities and technologies to share fresh perspectives on ways to work for a better world. The inaugural lecture at CERN was given by two speakers, Mo Ibrahim and Alpheus Bingham, each of them behind initiatives using technology to address difficult problems.

Mo Ibrahim founded Celtel International, one of Africa’s most successful mobile network operators. Ibrahim’s company has dramatically changed society in Africa – allowing millions of citizens to connect wirelessly, and thus promoting economic growth and social freedom. A study released this year by the World Bank found that a 10% increase in mobile-phone usage in developing countries increases per capita GDP by 0.8%. The same study also linked a 10% increase in high-speed Internet connections with an economic growth of 1.3%. Citizens, for example, can avoid being swindled by checking market prices in neighbouring towns before agreeing to buy or sell goods. Self-employed workers can make calls to advertise their services. Money can be transferred remotely with mobile phones in Africa, making banking transactions and travelling more safe.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, technology is also promoting democracy in Africa. Mobile phones help observers monitor the outcome of elections, making fraud easier to spot. They are also used to report human-rights violations and to coordinate conservation projects.

Having sold his company for $3.4 billion in 2004, Ibrahim, along with his daughter Hadeel, is now behind a humanitarian foundation that supports good leaders in Africa by awarding prizes. He also uses his influence to promote business activities in Africa, believing that the continent is not only ripe with opportunities but that it is also what is best for Africans. “I don’t believe in charities,” he says. “I believe in business. People should do clean business and that will do the job.”

The second invited speaker was Alpheus Bingham, founder of InnoCentive, a Web-based community that has shown a way to make it easier to connect difficult problems with novel solutions. Through its website InnoCentive puts ‘Seeker organizations’, that have a problem from which they are seeking a solution in contact with ‘Solvers,’ who can win cash for offering the best solution.

Bingham’s belief is that, in many instances, outsiders (often in a loosely related field) manage to bring fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to problems that have stumped “experts.” “InnoCentive harnesses the global reach of the Internet to let ‘Seekers’ find the right ‘Solvers’, he explains. We hope the lecture series will focus attention on the broader aims of the Centre,” says Ben Segal, Citizen Cyberscience Centre collaborator, “of supporting development and education by harnessing the power of volunteer thinking and volunteer computing technology.”

This centre will help regional authorities, humanitarian workers and scientists harness the computers and the minds of volunteers on the Web, to help predict the impact of new vaccines for neglected diseases, study the effects of climate change on developing regions, or turn satellite images into useful maps of remote regions – to cite just a few examples of what citizen cyberscience projects are already doing today.

by Danielle Amy Venton