From cancer to climate change: The tech you can use to save the world
You only need look at news headlines to realise that we’re definitely on the dark timeline in life. Climate change is advancing at an unprecedented pace, the world is filling up with people and we’re running out of food. It’s a grim place to be, especially when you feel rather helpless about solving it all.
However, along with making some lifestyle changes to help be a more sustainable individual, there’s a slew of ways you can turn to technology to help improve the world.
How to use tech to save the world:
1. Use your hardware to help humanity
BOINC(Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) contributes your hardware’s idle time to a variety of scientific projects such as predicting climate change, finding cures for diseases and detecting alien life. You choose which projects to support, and connect to as many different ones as you like. Hover your mouse over any link in the list of projects on the website to find out what its aims are.
BOINC has been in operation since 2002 and is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android (but not iOS, oddly). You can find out more about its work and download the software from boinc.berkeley.edu. If you choose to run BOINC on Windows, you have the choice of downloading just the installer, or the installer and VirtualBox. Some science projects require you to run BOINC in a safe, virtualised environment, so the latter option is recommended.
Once you start running BOINC, your PC or mobile device receives a set of tasks from the project’s scheduling server. These tasks depend on your hardware, so you won’t get one that requires more memory than you have. Your device then downloads and runs files from the project’s data server to produce output files that it sends back. Once the tasks you’ve been set are complete, you’re assigned new ones.
The World Community Grid uses BOINC for health-related research into AIDS, cancer, TB and Zika.
2. Help to improve cancer care
Cancer is one of the most common diseases afflicting the world today, although thanks to advances in medical science, more people than ever are surviving it. You can do your bit to help the fight against cancer by using the DreamLab app, developed by the Vodafone Foundation. This uses your phone’s processing power at night while you sleep (and your device is charging) to analyse billions of combinations of existing cancer drugs to identify the best, most effective cancer treatment in the UK. DreamLab is available for both Android and iOS (iPhone users need to press the Power DreamLab button to get started).
3. Help find cures for major diseases
The human body relies on proteins to keep us healthy. They assemble themselves by ‘folding’, but if they misfold, the results can lead to health problems such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, BSE (so-called Mad Cow Disease) and several types of cancer. [email protected] is a project that aims to discover how protein folding is linked to disease, and identify potential cures. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android, and there’s also a Chrome extension that lets you run protein-folding simulations directly in your browser. You can manage the amount of power devoted to the simulation, and start and stop it at any time.
4. Record and share wildlife sightings
With so many plant and animal species under threat, it’s important to know which ones are (and aren’t) still around. The excellent free app iNaturalist lets you record encounters with wildlife, and share them with a community of more than 400,000 scientists and naturalists.
You can either sign up for a project that interests you, such as recording flora and fauna in locations including the North Devon Seashore and Snowdonia National Park, or create your own.
The app runs on Android and iOS and works offline.
Alternatively, there’s the iRecord app for iOS and Android, which also lets you help with conservation by recording the wildlife you encounter. The app’s creator, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, also offers separate apps for recording Asian hornets (an invasive species not native to the UK), rare arable flowers, butterflies, ladybirds and grasshoppers.
5. Help conserve the bird population
Similar to iNaturalist but focused purely on ornithology, eBird lets you record birds you see in the field. These observations are sent to a global online database of bird records used by hundreds of thousands of birders and twitchers around the world, and made available for scientific research, education and conservation. You may also want to join the survey on UK birds conducted by the Big Garden Birdwatch website. It’s finished for this year (you can view the results on the website), but will resume again next January, when it will have been running for 40 years.
6. Help fight climate change
President Trump can say what he likes, but climate change is real. Climateprediction.net is a specialist climate-modelling project that shows the effect on our world of climate both now and in the next century. Like similar projects, it uses BOINC and lets you run models that predict – among other things – temperature, rainfall and the probability of extreme weather events.
The Greenie app for iOS and Android lets you fight back against climate change by providing information, tips and actions that you can carry out personally. Actions include enabling the sleep feature on your computer, unplugging chargers, turning off the TV, turning off the water when brushing your teeth, offsetting carbon emissions by planting a tree, and more. Enable an action to see how much CO2 you’ve saved, how much oxygen has been produced (if relevant) and the money saved so far (in dollars).
7. Help save endangered orangutans
Human destruction of orangutans’ natural habitat has severely endangered the species. You can help protect these magnificent creatures through Orangutan Nest Watch, powered by Zooniverse. Unlike the other projects featured here, you don’t have to download a program or app and run it in the background. Orangutan Nest Watch’s hands-on approach requires you to carefully search through drone images of rainforests, looking for and marking orangutan nests and fig trees. A tutorial and field guide shows you what to look for.
8. Perform people-powered research in Zooniverse
The Zooniverse app, available for iOS and Android, offers a wide range of other citizen-science projects that you can contribute to. These currently include classifying cyclones, spying on penguins, discovering the secret life of chimps, reporting on distant galaxies and characterising Martian surfaces. Some projects are made for mobile devices, while others run in your browser. Projects that are no longer available are tagged ‘Out of Data’.