When Sawyer Thompson was just 12 years old, he discovered his father Brett unconscious in their Washington, DC area home. Sawyer called an ambulance and Brett was rushed to the hospital, where the family learned the worst: He had brain cancer. After a year of surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, Brett's cancer is in remission. But Sawyer wanted to do more to fight against cancer, and is tapping his interest in tech to make a bigger difference.
Like many young people, Sawyer -- who built his first computer at age 9, and started a business called ZOYA building machines for locals -- took to the internet. A Google search on "how to help cure cancer" led him to the IBM World Community Grid app, and gave him a way to make a difference from home.
IBM World Community Grid app uses "volunteer computing" -- a type of distributed computing where you donate your computer's unused resources to a research project. Basically, with the app, your computer, phone or tablet can run virtual experiments in the background while you aren't using it that would normally take years of expensive trial and error using laboratory computers alone. The crowdsourcing approach lets anyone participate in important research, with no time, money or expertise required.
"I've always wanted to find a way to help people with computers," Sawyer said. "World Community Grid allows anyone to help cure cancer, find cures for COVID-19 and study rainfall in Africa. It's really cool."
As people are still largely stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, finding ways to volunteer that don't require an in-person commitment or a donation can be difficult. But volunteer computing initiatives like World Community Grid provide opportunities to help.
Last year, Sawyer created a website called Help Sawyer Fight Cancer to share his dad's story and urge people to sign up for the app. He set an "audacious goal" of getting 100 years of cancer research processing time donated before his dad's birthday in September. Two other users on another team, nicknamed Old Chap in the UK and the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, came across the project. Their team joined Sawyer's, and within a few months more than 80 people around the world helped him cross the 100-year mark.
Soon after that, Old Chap received a cancer diagnosis of his own. And Sawyer, now age 14, decided to shoot for 1,000 years of research processing time, instead of just 100.
"I changed the goal not just for my dad, but for Old Chap and anyone else who finds themself unexpectedly on this journey," Sawyer said. "It's honestly been crazy. At first I never thought we'd reach 100 years, and here we are trekking our way to 1,000 years."
The team's computers have already performed about 1 million calculations -- contributing more than 450 years worth of computing, had a single PC been crunching the same numbers.
"Other forms of donating to researchers involve money," Sawyer said. "But this is 100% free and requires no effort at all."
No skills, time or money needed to help
Volunteer computing has been around since the 1990s, and such efforts are typically organized by academic and research organizations. IBM launched the World Community Grid as part of the company's social responsibility work in 2004. The app currently has more than 785,000 volunteers who donate their unused computing power to any of seven projects, focused on healthcare research on cancer, COVID-19, bacteria, tuberculosis and AIDS, or environmental research on rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa.
"World Community Grid is essentially a way to crowdsource big scientific problems, and enlist the help of volunteers to solve challenges in health and environmental research," said Juan Hindo, an IBM Corporate Social Responsibility manager and leader of the World Community Grid team.
The Mapping Cancer Markers project identifies indicators of cancer and studies how to personalize treatment plans. Researchers have millions of different tissue samples -- from healthy people, from people with different types of cancer, from those who have passed and from those who are still patients.
"They're essentially doing a massive data comparison exercise to compare the genetic profile of all these people in the hope of identifying factors that can say, for example, people with aggressive type of cancer X are more likely to have these biomarkers," Hindo said.
To process these millions of data points requires a lot of computing power, Hindo said. That's where volunteers step in.
"Rather than trying to find a supercomputer or get more funding for computing capacity, [the researchers] bring us millions of calculations, and we distribute them out to our massive community of volunteers," she added. "They're not scientists or techies, and they don't need any skills or expertise to solve this problem."
With the app installed on a volunteer's computer or Android device, any time those devices aren't being fully used, it can run a calculation.
"By crowdsourcing this and running it out over our volunteer community, the researchers get to do this in a fraction of the time," Hindo said. "We hear from our volunteers over and over again that they feel like they're a part of a scientific process that they wouldn't otherwise be able to contribute to."
How World Community Grid works
You can join the World Community Grid through IBM's website by entering an email address and creating a password, and then selecting which of the active projects you'd like to put your computing power toward. Then, you download the app on your computer or Android device (it's not on iOS).
Once you've joined the program and installed the app, everything works seamlessly, Hindo said. The app will figure out if you have any spare computing power and if so, will take on some calculations and send results back.
The app only runs if you are plugged in and if your device is charged at least 90 percent. The Android app version will only download calculations or upload results when connected to Wi-Fi, so it won't eat up your data, Hindo said. The ideal use case is when you're charging your phone or computer overnight.
When you open the app, you can find out what types of calculations your device has been working on.
In terms of security, the app uses one folder where downloaded and uploaded data goes, but doesn't touch any other data on your device, Hindo said. On the other end, the data you receive from researchers doesn't include any personally identifiable information, she added. However, anything you post in the community forums may become available to third party search engines online, according to the app's terms of service.
Researchers keep IBM and volunteers up to date on how they're using the data and calculations, what results they're finding and where they are publishing those discoveries, Hindo said. World Community Grid is also an open data project, which means all findings are made publicly available so the wider scientific community can benefit from volunteers' work.
The projects have yielded many papers published in scientific journals, Hindo said. For example, in 2014, scientists from a World Community Grid project aiming to fight childhood cancer announced the discovery of seven compounds that can destroy neuroblastoma cancer cells without any apparent side effects, marking a move toward new treatments.
"I want people to feel empowered that they can do something productive -- it's a fairly unique way of supporting a cause they care about, like cancer research," Hindo said. "Everyone's familiar with ways of volunteering your time or donating your money, and this is a different type of volunteerism -- all it takes is for you to download the app."