Logging on to Facebook could double as a way of contributing to important scientific research in the future.
Researchers at Victoria University are developing a Facebook app that enable people to donate the resources of their computer to scientific projects.
Individual computers or even small clusters are usually unable to cope with the complex computation and large scale storage of data required.
Dr Kris Bubendorfer from Victoria University has been collaborating with researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and Cardiff University in Wales on how information, hardware and services can be shared using the computing resources of a person’s online network.
Bubendorfer says integrating cloud architecture with a social network like Facebook has advantages over existing options, such as commercial clouds which some research teams use on a pay-as-you-go basis.
“Using commercial clouds can be very expensive and it’s difficult for researchers to get funding to access public cloud time," said Bubendorfer.
“While volunteer computing works well, it doesn’t have the means to publicise projects so the numbers currently participating are limited."
Facebook, on the other hand, has nearly 500 million active users daily (although that includes people who may interact with Facebook online without actually visiting the site, for example, through a third-party app).
“If we can recruit even one per cent of current Facebook users to become volunteers, that will have a significant impact on resources available for research.”
Collaborators in Germany are developing incentives that would encourage Facebook users to sign on for volunteer computing while the team in Cardiff is working on business models to support the initiative.
At Victoria, Master’s students have been investigating how the volunteer computing model can be adapted for Facebook and an application is expected to be ready for release at the end of this year.
Another Victoria student under Dr Bubendorfer’s supervision is working on a different strand of the research – how scientists can use social networks to team up and form virtual research environments.
Bubendorfer said social networks offer an easy and quick way for scientists to find each other and agree to share resources for the duration of a project.
“To an extent, this is democratisation of the cloud.”