Simply switching on computers all over the world could help to tackle one of Africa's major challenges - malaria - with the installation of a specialized software.
Africa@home, a project conceived by CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire - the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) - lets volunteers download the software that crunches potentially insightful numbers as long as a computer is turned on.
When the software runs in the background of an idling computer, it records simulations that model the spread of malaria through Africa. The programme is currently recruiting volunteer PCs in homes and offices to run a computer-intensive simulation programme called MalariaControl.net, developed by researchers at the Swiss Tropical Institute.
MalariaControl.net takes the institute's model and converts it into a form that can be scattered across hundreds of computers.
"The MalariaControl.net programme is being used to simulate how malaria spreads through Africa. Running the simulations on thousands of volunteer computers will enable researchers to better understand and improve the impact of introducing new treatments," said a CERN release.
To install MalariaControl.net, volunteers have to download the necessary software from the Africa@home website, which will do the scientific calculations in the background while they use their PCs.
Results are regularly returned to a server at the University of Geneva so that researchers can evaluate them.
Already, in a first test phase over several months with 500 volunteers, Africa@home was able to run simulations equivalent to 150 years of processing time on a single computer.
A key objective of the project was to involve African academic institutions in the development of the software.
Due to efforts of non-profit organisations ICVolunteers and Informaticiens sans Frontieres, researchers from the University of Bamako in Mali and the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie in Bamako and in Yaoundé, Cameroon, were able to join the project team based at CERN.
Tom Smith, a professor at the Swiss Tropical Institute, said, "Africa@home and volunteer computing really open up new horizons for us scientifically. We have already done more epidemiological modelling in a few months than we could have achieved on our own computer cluster in a few years."
Malaria is responsible for about a million deaths every year in sub-Saharan Africa and is the single biggest killer of children under five.
CERN, the world's leading laboratory for particle physics, has its headquarters in Geneva. India is one of the countries with observer status at CERN.