The Vault

Contribute to the Frontiers of Science with Nothing but Your Smartphone

Just over a decade ago, I had finished a months long DIY project: I had built, from parts old & new, a pretty powerful (for its time) desktop computer. Doing so was, of course, a pretty remarkable feeling in and of itself, but then having a beast of a computer let me do something even cooler: I loaded it up with a couple distributed computing programs and donated my idle computer power to protein folding research, the search for extraterrestrial life, or various other projects.

I loved the feeling of being able to contribute in a direct way to the scientific bettering of humankind, but when I transitioned entirely to a MacBook laptop, I abandoned the distributed computing scene; don’t get me wrong, I did try it, but it made my laptop run incredibly hot regardless of how I set the throttling on the research. Rather than shorten the life of my computer, I cut the distributing computing projects from my life. That was about half a decade ago, thereabouts.

Flash forward a few years, and I now have a smartphone — a powerful device that, particularly when it’s charging, sits idle, doing little more than awaiting the next push notification. The idea that my phone could be crunching numbers for SETI or some other research group has crossed my mind numerous times since first getting my phone, but searches of the App Store have never turned anything of that nature up.

That was frustrating because smartphones are incredibly versatile in just what they can process or detect. I remember when I first heard about phones containing barometric pressure sensors — useful for fitness apps to detect whether you’re going up and down stairs, for instance, by detecting variations in atmospheric pressure) — thinking that a clever climatology group could take advantage of the distributed weather stations that smartphones represent, data mining atmospheric information on an extremely local scale. Of course, a phone would probably have to know whether it was indoors and outdoors to provide good data, but crowdsourcing the weather isn’t that farfetched of an idea.

As it turns out, thinking about the weather was thinking too small.